Two things become abundantly clear upon a viewing of the latest film iteration of Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth. Firstly, the film showcases incredible and potentially Oscar-worthy performances from Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – that, regardless of your opinion on Shakespeare, deserves to be observed and admired. Secondly, an essential and integral ingredient in the critical and artistic success of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth lies in his use of the Scottish landscape.
At this point it should be clear that this use of landscape is what I am referring to when calling upon scotsploitation. But what does this pretentious jargon word mean?
Cinematic ploitation pieces, although artistic in their own rights, are typically B movie affairs that exploit a cultural stereotype or trend in order to achieve financial success. The blaxploitation films of the 70s are a prime example of this. Where Macbeth draws similarities with ploitation films, and what perhaps qualifies it as a scotsploitation piece, is Kurzel’s exploitation of not just the Scottish highlands but our established perception of Scotland (particularly ye olde Scotland, as a wild, untamed and bleak country).
By playing upon and exaggerating the Scottish setting, Kurzel visually enhances the Macbeth narrative; his depiction of the highlands reflects and accentuates Macbeth’s descent into madness. This concept can be found across the globe. Despite being his home nation, George Miller’s decision to set the Mad Max series in Australia is clearly an artistic choice. The Outback as the archetypal image of Australia enriches the Mad Max series by mirroring the harsh and unforgiving nature of the characters and plot. Similarly the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, although obviously not set in New Zealand, are advertised as an exhibition of New Zealand’s varied and beautiful landscapes, thus reflecting the epic scale and nature of the Middle Earth stories.
Interestingly, film makers can exploit these cultural interpretations in order to challenge perception. New Zealand director Lee Tamahori’s 1994 film Once Were Warriors offers a depiction of the poverty and class struggles that affect urbanised New Zealand natives, particularly focusing on the encroachment of Western ideals upon traditional values. This, of course, is far removed from the idyllic and pristine scenery presented in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tamahori acknowledges this with the opening shot, which shows the audience a typical piece of New Zealand scenery – the camera then pans away to reveal the countryside is part of a billboard overlooking a busy urban highway.
Returning to Macbeth, Kurzel has created a near perfect balance of setting, tone, and character. This is a self aware piece of cinema that knows the culture and history of its source material, as well as the connotations of its location and mise en scene. Justin Kurzel uses this to add deeper meaning to his Macbeth adaptation and raise his film to a higher form of art.