Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Patty Considine
Director: Justin Kurzel
Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Of all Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth seems to be the most innately filmable. Three cinematic adaptations certainly stand out; one by Orson Wells, the other from Polanski, and a third from Akira Kurosawa under the title Throne of Blood. Now we have director Justin Kurzel (whose 2011 serial killer drama The Snowtown Murders was a singular vision of bleak depravity) taking a crack at the Bard with a similarly self-serious plunge into darkness, blood, and carnage. Working from a script by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie, Kurzel sticks with the original language but then obscures it's meaning through thick accents, mumbled deliveries, and the sheer operatic thrust of his brother Jed Kurzel's score. Retaining the dialect from the original text but then shifting events around or reorganizing them to make the tension more palpable, makes this new Macbeth a wholly cinematic beast. It's also to Kurzel's credit that he finds a filmic language; (stylized slow-motion, glowing red fog, shooting real locations in Scotland and Italy with immaculately designed interiors, etc) that accentuates, rather than detracts, from Shakespeare's words.
If anything, this story still stands as one the most searing indictments of male-driven hubris ever committed to prose, and in Kurzel's version, we never really witness the titular character as anything other than tormented. During a wordless opening, which goes from an infant's funeral into a stylized battle sequence, there's a willingness to stretch things further into the void of amorality as Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) comes into view, smeared with face paint and staring off into the distance as if possessed by supernatural powers. As Macbeth's army engages the traitorous Macdonwald clan, Kurzel turns things into a kind of slow-mo ballet of blood and mass slaughter, which could draw unwelcome comparisons to the fetishization of macho violence found in Zack Snyder's 300, but it's actually closer in style to the arty montages found in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist and Melancholia. Since most treatments either reconfigure the story into a modern setting or go the stuffy traditional route, these opening moments are crucial in extrapolating the kind of middle ground Kurzel and company will be walking. It's a delicate balancing act between remaining faithful to the intentions of the text while engaging in atmospheric mood as a driving force, and despite a few flaws, the film pulls it off.
Also interesting here are the ways in which the screenwriters take dramatic liberties with structure in order to inform the moral culpability of the characters. For instance, heir to the throne Malcolm (Jack Renor) actually catches Macbeth in the act of murdering King Duncan (David Thewlis), and then takes flight in fear, while Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) witnesses the public burning of Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her children. This last bit makes for a provocative lens into which both the fear and pain of Macbeth's inability to raise his own heir to the throne are dramatized, visualized during the opening moments with the stark image of a lifeless child. The idea that the Macbeth's gradually go insane due to grief over their deceased kin is an intriguing one, but it also clashes somewhat with Shakespeare's original rendering of unchecked ego, ambition, and the suggestion of power. Thank goodness, then, for thespians like Fassbender and Cotillard, who more than hold their own in these iconic roles. The former never even bothers portraying Macbeth as a man once "full of the milk of human kindness", instead choosing to reveal the insatiable blood lust and confusion from the outset; a deranged presence so intoxicated by hubris that he willingly speaks of murderous exploits aloud in front of everyone. Meanwhile, Cotillard makes even more of an impact as Lady Macbeth, delivering a performance both intimate and operatic, gritty and theatrical. Her guilt-ridden "Out, damned spot" soliloquy is interpreted here as an early morning sleepwalk, and Cotillard absolutely knocks it out of the park.
As envisioned by Kurzel and his scribes, Macbeth is a story of deluded male entitlement masquerading as a nightmarish war film. It's suitably visceral, ponderous, and given to near graphic novel levels of violence. Even though the play's speeches, written as verses, are delivered here as prose, they never feel stagey or calculated. In fact, Shakespeare's language is often muddled underneath the intensity of the film's sound design, and while that may unnerve purists, the fact of the matter is that the words don't really matter. Controversial, to be sure, but Kurzel's adaptation makes it obvious that making every inflection and soliloquy understandable is not necessarily integral to cinematic storytelling. In a way, the film is a symphony of nihilism and vengeance that goes outside the play in order to contextualize the two central character's fatal flaws, and there's nothing sacrilegious about that. As Lady Macbeth says, "what's done is done", and Macbeth goes out with much of the text trimmed, truncated, and moved around; to the sound of rousing tribal drums and encroaching red mist.