Overview: Feared warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), incited by his wife (Marion Cotillard), plots to kill King Duncan (David Thewlis) and take over as a tyrant ruler of Scotland. The Weinstein Company; 2015; Not Rated; 113 minutes.
Hail Macbeth: William Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted on stage and screen countless times, and Macbeth is no different. While the slow-motion action sequences and sharp visuals are elements only feasible now, it is not enough to warrant another version of a play already adapted by cinematic greats such as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski. On the other hand, significant changes to the source material do not have to be made for the sake of modernisation. Fortunately, Kurzel’s Macbeth balances this well. It has its own identity, and is selective in how it engages with the original text. The play itself is so rich in characters, theme, and language, that the director could take another run at it and make an entirely different film.
The Milk of Human Kindness: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are humanised from the outset, with a focus on the loss of their child absent from other interpretations, a void that marks their behaviour, plans and decisions throughout. There is also a far greater sense of intimacy than most versions, each light touch between the two emphasised. Both actors have the ability to bring charm and sensuality to roles that are otherwise ruthless, but they also have the on-screen chemistry required to make their interactions work. Cotillard in particular embodies the role like no other, transitioning from a reptilian coldness to absolute sorrow with ease. The scenes in which they do not appear are eased by the supporting cast. Jack Reynor’s Malcolm is mostly relegated to reacting to events, and comes across as passive, but the actor brings such pathos to these few scenes that they have emotional weight. Macduff is the noble mirror of Macbeth that is often less compelling, but Sean Harris’ performance is full of the intensity needed to keep us invested.
Full of Sound and Fury: An important direction taken by Kurzel is to make the most of the medium. With the Shakespearean language kept intact, with (mostly accurate) Scottish accents often mumbled or whispered, means that a lot of lines will be lost on people. Kurzel counteracts this by communicating as much as possible through cinematic language. I’d estimate that around 90% of the film could function without dialogue and still be understandable. The sound mixing and music facilitates this. Jed Kurzel’s score is haunting, unnerving, and beautiful in equal measure – at times reminding me of Jonny Greenwood’s formidable score for There Will Be Blood. This isn’t to say that the dialogue we’ve all come to see is downplayed, as it is entrusted to actors that make every syllable count. The way Fassbender’s tortured expression twists into a pained smile as he hisses “Full of scorpions is my mind” is worth the ticket price alone.
Outside of the impressive battles that bookend the film, the production feels deliberately minimal. Stripped back from the play’s larger cast, and with the politics at play shifted into the background, we can spend more time with the central characters. One major flaw is that not all of this acquired time is spent in the right areas. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is side-lined slightly, and lengthy sequences of time passing through (admittedly beautiful) landscape shots almost brings the movie to a stop in its second act. It is understandable, as this fits with the fever dream Kurzel is trying to construct. A film that’s incredibly similar in tone and pacing is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, so if you are a fan of his work this may be for you.
Blood Will Have Blood: If Polanski’s 1971 adaptation interpreted the tale as a horror, this is a war movie. Fassbender’s Macbeth is full of the trauma of years of killing on the battlefield, damaged by the violence he has wrought, yet incapable of leaving that path. He applies war paint to the faces of terrified young boys, marching them to their deaths, and his is plagued by the images of the dead as he steps closer to damnation. It would be easy for the director to indulge in the carnage of the story, but there is an aversion to violence present even in the slow-motion bloodshed. The brutality is juxtaposed by the poetic imagery, as the Witches walk amongst the war-torn Scottish moors as if it is completely natural. Similarly, the fall of Macbeth is given moral context by Banquo (Paddy Considine in a perfectly understated performance) and his son Fleance (newcomer Lochlann Harris). Harris is the best child actor I have seen in a very long time, and I’ll be looking out for him in the future. His character is utilised in a very interesting way, one that is a slight departure from the play yet strengthens the themes Kurzel highlights.
Overall: I have often thought that Fassbender and Cotillard may be two of the greatest actors working today, and I only feel more confident in that claim. While it may not maintain the same quality through its entire runtime, Macbeth is one of the most riveting films of the year.