Daggers of the mind

12 October 2015

I am in two minds about the new film version of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel. Did I like it? I certainly enjoyed it, if that is the right term for spending 90 minutes watching scenes of battle and murder, with no shortage of blood and untrustworthiness. There is good acting, camera work (the wobbly hand of the modern cameraman is effective), and the dark and brooding scenes of moorland and mountain provide an appropriate backdrop. There is also a coherent storyline - perhaps a little too coherent - and complex trauma is well-represented in both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Film-makers should alter storylines, but I am not sure that introducing a dead baby for the Macbeth family works. It gave the film an explicitness that the play doesn’t have (explicitness being a problem of modernity). The start shows the Macbeths distraught at the funeral of their young - and only - child. There is then a battle scene, with close ups of frightened and traumatised faces, strong men and young boys, long swords and lots of hacking the enemy to pieces.

So within a few minutes of the start of the film we have a good reason for a) both Macbeths to be traumatised through the loss of their child and b) Macbeth to be traumatised and brutalised by war.

Accept the rationale for the introduction of the baby and the film works. When Macbeth meets Duncan we see the trauma of recent battle on his face. When the possibility of the succession to the throne arises we see Lady Macbeth in her usual role as originator and Macbeth as perpetrator of the death of Duncan. We see the decline of Macbeth’s mental health as he fights between doing what his wife wants and trying to control himself.

Macbeth’s trauma is evident. He is represented as strong, weak, decisive, indecisive - ie normal. He has flashbacks and intrusive thoughts - common symptoms of our modern disorder, PTSD. He has visions (of witches, of people he has killed), he makes murder look easy in the killing of Duncan, though that presumably derives from being brutalised. Without his wife’s influence he may have continued to be a loyal subject of Duncan, and this debate is evident throughout.

I remain undecided regarding the baby. I was unconvinced by Macbeth’s village being placed on an evident wooden platform on a moor, in a place that would not sustain human life, there being no room for animals nor crops (the city person’s fallacy, not realising that food is grown). I was also unconvinced by the ending (don’t worry, I won’t give it away), which is rather drawn out. Why do our film heroes always take so long to die? (Sorry, I gave it away)

This Macbeth demonstrates the complexity of problems faced by traumatised people. Trauma is not about a single isolated incident. It is an interaction between things that happen to people, interactions with people, the social world generally and the culture in which we live. This is well represented in the film.

- Nigel Hunt is Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Nottingham. He will be speaking at a British Psychological Society event on Wednesday 18 November to commemorate the centenary of C.S. Myers’ shell shock article in The Lancet.