Adaptations of Shakespeare are frequently spectacles, occasions for lavish costumes and flashy settings to underline the prestige of yet another Shakespeare production. But the newest Macbeth sets out to be an anti-spectacle. The hilly landscapes are bleak and virtually empty; costumes run the limited gamut from white to black; and except for Duncan's (presumably chilly) castle, the only visible manmade structures are Macbeth's tiny wooden house and the nearby church, both so full of cracks that the wind blasts through the walls and the rain pours through the ceilings. Characters are alternately filmed in medium shots or tight closeups so that they fill the screen, blocking out all else, and framed in shots so long that they virtually disappear into the inhospitable surroundings, like gnats. The gloom is only interrupted by occasional blasts of fire, accelerating from the child's funeral pyre with which the film opens to the burning Birnam woods (a new twist on the prophecy--the smoke and flames come toward Dunsinane, not the trees) to the apocalyptic red blaze with which it all ends.
This bleakness, not to mention the apparent sparsity of the population, makes the play's game of thrones seem even more pointless: what, exactly, is the rationale for all this traumatic bloodshed, save the naked lust for power? The filmmakers accelerate the speed of Macbeth's rise, decline, and fall by sharply abridging Shakespeare's text. The Weird Sisters glare ominously, but actually have little to say. Virtually all of Malcolm's dialogue is gone, including his test of Macduff's virtue; so, surprisingly, is Lady Macbeth's admission that Duncan looks too much like her father for her to kill him, along with her sleepwalking (and, for that matter, all references to insomnia). Perhaps not so surprisingly under the circumstances, the Porter at the gate is also out (no humor allowed here, plus there's no gate in sight), and, given the scenery, so too is Duncan's praise for the "pleasant seat" of Macbeth's castle (which, here, is pretty much one step above a hut). The murderers neither speak nor are spoken to. Various minor characters are nowhere to be seen. Other moments have been rearranged, so that Duncan's proclamation of Malcolm as his heir happens after he arrives at Macbeth's home, while Malcolm actually walks in on Macbeth right after he murders Duncan (and, understandably, takes a hike immediately thereafter, without chatting with Donalbain).
What is the effect of all these cuts? Most importantly, the characters' motivations are stripped down to their starkest elements--greed and revenge predominant among them. In the original text, Duncan is worthy of being followed in part because he is virtuous, and ditto Malcolm (the point of testing Macduff); here, Macduff follows Malcolm because it gives him ample opportunity for avenging the murders of his wife and children, not because Malcolm is the rightful and virtuous heir. Similarly, moving Malcolm's proclamation as heir both delays Macbeth's initial expression of greed--he was quite cheerful enough about his promotion before--and alters its resolution, as it offers a more immediate psychological reason for him to change his mind about murdering the king. Lady Macbeth sans sleepwalking and sans angst about Duncan's looks becomes even more the manipulative woman behind the weak man; her crash into insanity is largely prompted by Macbeth's decision to murder the Macduff family, which the film represents as the moment at which she clearly realizes that she has lost control over her husband. That moment also brings into focus the question of her maternity: the film opens with the cremation of her child and, in a shocking echo, Lady Macduff and her three children are burnt alive at the stake. Having lost a child, Lady Macbeth ultimately implodes at the sight of her husband murdering more. Macbeth, who murders Banquo in part out of rage that his children will become kings, is haunted by the ghost of a young soldier killed during the opening battle--an obvious substitute for his own lost child--who comes bearing the fatal dagger during Macbeth's soliloquy; instead of representing future potential, the dead soldier only impels Macbeth to yet more bloodshed. Indeed, the only children who make it out of this adaptation alive are the silent baby and equally silent girl accompanying the Weird Sisters (a reference to the children who appear in the original prophecies of Macbeth's death), both apparently devoid of fathers in a world in which avenging fathers and fathers avenging alike are a prime cause of bloodshed, and Fleance, whose race towards the hellish apocalypse at the end, sword in hand, promises that the play's end is no end at all.