The Best Of Macbeth On Screen

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This week news emerged that Michael Fassbender is attached to a new production of Macbeth, to be directed by Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel and with Natalie Portman set to be his Lady Macbeth. It seems like a good move for Fassbender who is, after all, So Hot Right Now and Portman’s reportedly been hoping to play Shakespeare’s ambitious Lady for ages. What’s more, while they’re following in the footsteps of some of the greatest actors of the last century – including several of Fassbender’s fellow mutants – there have been relatively few versions of The Scottish Play onscreen. Here we profile a few of the best…

Director: *Orson Welles
Orson Welles
Lady Macbeth: Jeanette Nolan*

Funnily enough, this isn’t even Welles’ most famous Macbeth. He directed a stage version in Harlem in 1936, setting the action in Haiti and turning the three witches into voo doo practitioners. Perhaps still stinging from accusations of inflaming racist tensions, his film version twelve years later was a slightly more traditional take, setting the action in 11th century Scotland and maintaining the Scottish accents among the cast. At the time, it was compared unfavourably to Olivier’s Hamlet, which was released around the same time, but it’s aged well and is now considered one of Welles’ better efforts.

Director: *Akira Kurosawa
Macbeth / Washizu:
Toshiro Mifune
Lady Macbeth / Asaji: Isuzu Yamada*

Weirdly enough, this is generally considered the finest filmed Macbeth – despite taking many liberties with the play and being, y’know, in a completely different language – so Kurzel, Fassbender and Portman should take a good look before constructing their version. Kurosawa transported the action to feudal Japan to great effect but kept the fog and misery and threatened Mifune with real arrows to ensure an authentic look of fear in his most desperate hours – and of course he had the great advantage of being Kurosawa, so his skill makes this an intensely cinematic experience.

Director: Roman Polanski
Macbeth: Jon Finch
Lady Macbeth: Francesca Amis

Filmed in the wake of his wife Sharon Tate’s murder by Charles Manson and his gang, Polanski’s take on the play is bleak and relentless, emphasising the horrific and violent elements of the story. Controversially, it had a good bit more nudity than most too – Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking scene is played entirely nekkid by Amis – but Polanski’s sheer talent means it’s beautifully staged and shot against the dank, gloomy backgrounds of Wales and Northumberland. The initial critical reaction was mixed – some critics, including Pauline Kael, considered it crude and over-simplified; others, like the late Roger Ebert, hailed it as an original vision. Either way, it somehow manages to offer a modern twist while sticking close to the original period.

Director: *Trevor Nunn
Macbeth: Ian McKellen
Lady Macbeth: Judi Dench*

This is not a terribly cinematic outing; it’s more a camera pointed at an almost set-free stage version in order to capture what’s considered one of the great 20th century Macbeths, originally an RSC production staged in the round in a tiny theatre. Still, if you can shake off the memories of being forced to watch this for GCSE English (just us?) and get past the lack of anything resembling the movies, you can’t help but be a bit awed by how good these actors are. This McKellen guy and this Dench lady should really go places, we reckon. That said, they’ll probably never be cast in a huge blockbuster series, let alone all of them. What a shame.

*Director: William Reilly
Macbeth / Mike Battaglia: John Turturro
Lady Macbeth / Ruthie:
Katherine Borowitz*

In this indie, the Bard is relocated to a New York crime syndicate, with Turturro’s hitman Mike Battaglia rising within his organisation before deciding, at the urging of his wife Ruthie, to murder his boss and take his position. Of course, things don’t go quite to plan and questions of conscience trouble the pair – but while the performances are good here, the fusion of tough-guy gangster speak and the traces of Shakespearean verse here is not a seamless one (“All of these guys is of woman born. They can't do shit to me.”). The idea of relocating to a gang environment was done before – in 1955’s Joe MacBeth – and since – the 2006 film that follows, so you know it fits, but while the result here is witty, it’s not exactly essential.

*Director: Nikolai Serebryakov
Macbeth: Brian Cox (voice)
Lady Macbeth: Zoe Wanamaker (voice)*

The animation is sort of nightmarish (deliberately, we assume), the background music irritating and the play cut to shreds to fit the brief running time. But if you’re after a quick primer on the Scottish Play, you could do a lot worse than this zippy BBC / Russian co-production. Cox is, as you’d expect, a gruff and manly Macbeth, with that sonorous voice making you wonder why they don’t have him voice everything, and Wanamaker makes for a fierce wife urging him on.

Director: *Billy Morrissette
Macbeth / Joe ‘Mac’ McBeth: James LeGros
Lady Macbeth / Pat McBeth: Maura Tierney*

In perhaps the most out-there relocation of the story on the list, Macbeth is here transported to a 1970s burger bar, where an employee passed over for management rats out his employer to get ahead but soon finds more violent means of progressing his career. The witches here are subbed by three stoned hippies, and Christopher Walken plays Lieutenant Ernie McDuff, called in to investigate. It’s all rather wacky and out-there, but it’s entertaining in its sheer unlikelihood – Pat’s obsession with her hands here begins when she’s splashed with the cooking oil that kills Duncan, who falls into a deep-fat fryer.

Director: *Geoffrey Wright
Macbeth: Sam Worthington
Lady Macbeth: Victoria Hill*

Ever wondered how the Scottish play would sound if it were Australian? Wonder no more! Director Geoffrey Wright launched Russell Crowe’s career with Romper Stomper, and pretty much pulled the same trick for Sam Worthington here. The Aussie accents take a bit of getting used to, as does the fact that the play’s been relocated to a Melbourne gangland where all the criminals look like rock stars, but it’s got energy and verve to burn and there are some clever twists to fit the play’s language to the modern day.

Director:* Peter Moffat
Macbeth / Joe Macbeth: James McAvoy
Lady Macbeth / Ella Macbeth: Keeley Hawes*

For this 90-minute TV version, we’re in a celebrity restaurant run by Duncan (Vincent Regan) where sous-chef Joe Macbeth wants credit for his own work, and works with his maitre’D wife Ella to ensure that he gets it. But the mystical binmen who advise him of his destiny to own the restaurant – yes, mystical binmen; stick with us – warn him to beware the head waiter, Peter Macduff (Richard Armitage). There are some funny lines here – we’re fond of the reference to Gordon Ramsay as “the Scottish chef” – but it’s not exactly Shakespeare canon, for all its strengths in performance and wit. Still, for those of you keeping score, that’s the fourth X-actor on the list, not including Fassbender, and the first time that McAvoy played Macbeth – a role he’s recently reprised to full-length, original-text effect onstage in London to widespread acclaim.

Director: *Rupert Goold
M**acbeth: Patrick Stewart Lady Macbeth:* Kate Fleetwood

It’s another stage show-turned-TV-film, but this time they did at least go on location to Wellbeck Abbey to give it a little bit of scenery. Still, they port over the show’s look and feel very faithfully, with a sort-of 1940s Soviet setting and costumes, the action largely taking place underground for that claustrophobic, paranoid feel. Shot in just 18 days, with many shots done in a single take, it still has a live feel and gives you a chance to compare Stewart’s Macbeth to his X-castmates and admire Kate Fleetwood’s steely-yet-brittle co-conspirator.