Director Justin Kurzel’s new take on Shakespeare’s infamous “Scottish Play”, as it is referred to by those with a more superstitious mindset, is a deeply cinematic piece of work.
The adaptation hues closely to the original text, but comes at it from fresh perspectives that give new insight into power-hungry madness. It’s a film filled with eerily intoxicating visuals, brutally violent flourishes, lavish craft, and quietly intense performances. What it lacks in original oratorical poetry it more than makes up for in visual elegance. This is a boldly oppressive Macbeth that embraces the darkness within and makes that quality a character unto itself. It does what only the best cinematic interpretations of the Bard’s text can do, which is make you look at one of his signature works in a fresh and unexpected light.
Macbeth opens on the image of a dead child, which immediately sets the tone and the context for the doom that is to follow. The child is that of Macbeth and his lady, who grieve as they lay him to rest. Already they are shells of their former selves as their very souls have been ripped from them. Soon after, Macbeth finds himself marching on a battlefield in defense of King Duncan’s claim to the throne as the rebels advance against them. Macbeth witnesses the slaughter of many young men on both sides whose faces will soon come to haunt him. It is here, as if in a war-hazed fever dream, that Macbeth encounters the play’s memorable witches (depicted in the film as mysterious women emerging from the mist brandishing a child and suckling babe) who prophesize Macbeth’s rise to power as King of Scotland as well as his eventual downfall from a man not born of woman. If you know the play then you know this prophesy is fulfilled on every level, and causes a great deal of derangement in its leading players.
By making the brilliant decision to give the Macbeths a personal tragedy on which to hinge their grief and lust for power on, Kurzel is able to give the characters deeper motivations. Lady Macbeth in particular benefits from this backstory as it justifies her manipulation of her husband, who goes on to murder the King. Later in the story it gives Macbeth himself a sense of urgency to murder Banquo and his son Fleance, who is also prophesized to become King. Their personal tragedy makes the viewer question every event and image that unfolds, not least of which are the witches who are more abstract here than they have possibly ever been in any previous adaptation. This gives the film a powerful haste where nothing is as it seems. Make no mistake, the story of Macbeth is all here, but it is this new context that gives the film a beating heart and drives the madness to unshakable heights.
Michael Fassbender is an actor of extraordinary talent and a towering screen presence. His Macbeth is internalized and conflicted, but when he explodes forth with seething rage the effect is terrifying. Some will argue that it’s perhaps too internalized, and Shakespeare aficionados will become increasingly annoyed by the hushed tones and protracted whisper acting. But that is a grievance that applies across the board as Kurzel and his screenwriters Jacob Kassoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso are obviously going for a heightened cinematic naturalism that typical grand Shakespearian monologuing doesn’t quite fall into. If you can overcome the lack of beautiful poetry, the actor’s work here is truly something to see.
As good as Fassbender is, the film really belongs to Marion Cotillard who gives Lady Macbeth a fresh spin infused with vulnerability, sexiness, and horror. Cotillard has that rare gift as an actress where every look she gives, every breath she takes, and every line she utters just drips with pathos as there is a direct window into her soul. Everything is laid bare for the world to see with Cotillard as her grief for her dead child turns to power-hungry ambition, to genuine shock, to uncontrollable regret for all she is responsible for. This is no ice-queen performance, but Cotillard is commanding when the scene demands it of her and her natural French accent gives her an “otherness” that works well for the character as an outsider maneuvering her way through a world she isn’t prepared for. That her screen time feels shorter than in the play is more of a testament to her performance than a lack of material for her to play. You simply can’t get enough of her Lady Macbeth.
On the crafts side of things cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s lensing is this Macbeth’s ultimate master stroke. There is no minimalist stagecraft here as the vast, picturesque scenery provides an ominous backdrop and the mist coming off the highlands gives the kind of atmosphere that makes cinephiles drool. The splashes of bleeding crimson and earth-filled grit mixed in with painterly slow-motion photography is the icing on the cake. Macbeth is easily one of the most visually alluring films in recent memory. The stark production design by Fiona Crombie mixes effortlessly with Jacqueline Durran’s lived-in costumes. The only element that disappoints is Jed Kurzel’s low-key score that is adequately sparse, but also entirely unmemorable.
Justin Kurzel’s new take on Macbeth is a brooding, tormented delight. Its vision is focused and pure and its performances give new dimensions to well established characters. It’s the kind of adaptation that makes the old seem new again without sacrificing the original’s integrity. This “Scottish film” is an absolute triumph.