Macbeth Movie Madness: Brett v. Stewart

Last week, I introduced the way we’re going to review videos of Macbeth: a March Madness-style bracket with the fifteen immediately accessible versions. And today we have our first Bard battle:

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the 1981 production, directed by Allan Seidelman with Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie (the #14 seed)
Vs.
the 2010 film, directed by Rupert Goold with Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood (the #3 seed)

It’s really no competition. The Goold production is so damned good–it’s going to be tough to beat at all–and the Seidelman version simply wasn’t that good.

Why? The flat stagey (or at sound-stagey in this production) set make for a less polished and–dare I say it?–slightly amateurish vibe. The witches, which Seidelman seems to want to put between every scene–are a little too singy-dancey for my taste. And the performances…I keep thinking “different eras, different acting styles.” Only this is 1981, not 1881 (or even post-war Olivier).

The performances are broad, too big for such a tight space (here, the soundstage is more apparent). The leads are no better served by the directorial allowance to go full-on ham-mode. The Macbeth, Jeremy Brett, who would later do much better work as Sherlock Holmes in a British TV series less than a decade later, appears to have taken the “scorpions in the mind” line a little too literally, and goes off on wild flailing and mugging. Piper Laurie, as Lady Macbeth, is–as my late father liked his steaks cooked–overdone. While this kind of works in the sleepwalking scene (where she almost seems to be channeling her role from Carrie just a few years before), it’s distracting elsewhere. Her gesturing in the “unsex me now” speech (see the screen caps below) are just too “on the nose.”

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I do give Seidelman props for one thing, though. He cuts almost ALL of the usually interminable Act Four, Scene Three meeting of Malcolm and Macduff. It is not missed.

Now, the Goold film is simply a bravura piece of film-making. Great concept (seemingly Stalin-esque modern dress), well-deployed–we meet the witches as nurses in a battlefield hospital, and they are truly frightening. Patrick Stewart totally rocks the Macbeth role, with no mugging, few grand gestures, but a certain ever-decaying energy. And Kate Fleetwood makes for a lithe Lady Macbeth, sexily sinewy early on, but less attractive and more skeletal as the film progresses.

Banquo’s ghost makes an already surreal banquet scene even more so. The witches, as I noted, are actually scary. And while Goold keeps almost intact that long Malcolm/Macduff scene, it works here because of how it’s set: in an English sitting room, during a piano recital (plus we’re still recovering from a brutal killing of the Macduff wife and children–with Macbeth himself participating).

Damned good stuff.

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Updated Bracket: JPG / PDF

Goold and Stewart move on to face the winner of our next showdown: #11 the Michael Bogdanov-directed modern dress version from 1998 taking on the #6 video capture of the 2014 Kenneth Branagh staged version.

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