Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris
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Alongside Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth is arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play. It’s also the most interestingly adapted for the screen, with both Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa cementing their entirely different interpretations in cinematic history. This new version, starring Michael Fassbender, has a lot, therefore, to live up to, but it stands shoulder to shoulder with the great adaptations, turning The Bard’s tale of ambition and prophecy into a scorching story of family and conflict. This is Shakespeare’s Macbeth – but every inch of it is Justin Kurzel’s.
That much is evident from the very first frame, which presents us with a scene that isn’t even in the play: the burial of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s deceased child. It’s a striking revision of the original text, completely transforming the way we read the future king’s grasp for power. Where Polanski gave us Macbeth’s rise and fall as symptomatic of man’s ambition – a cycle that continues at the end with another fateful journey to the witches – Kurzel gives us a Macbeth fuelled by a longing for legacy. Of course the grieving warrior wants to become King; without a son, how else will his line pass into legend?
That emotional weight grounds the entire production; with its greys, browns and muddy greens, everything is mired in the grim weight of parental loss. The supernatural element of the story remains, but it’s filtered through the prism of war and death. Ghosts and spirits are now corpses of soldiers, while the witches do not hunch over cauldrons; they stand motionless in the middle of the battlefield, unscathed. Even here, Kurzel makes a subtle, but bold, change, upping the number from three witches to four – the additional siren takes the form of a young girl, something that nudges us into creepy horror territory, but reinforces the film’s obsession with offspring.
The fights themselves are some of the most vivid things you will see on a screen this year; one minute hazy with smoke, the next splattered in blood, they burst with the colour of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet, but without the vibrance or joy. Limbs hack limbs and swords batter swords, but never at the same speed; Kurzel and his masterful DoP Adam Arkapaw slow the violence down to a sloth’s pace, framing the brutality like painted portraits. We spend more time outdoors than in and even when we do, the camera is often near the roof in dazzling overhead sequences, as if straining to escape into the sky. It’s like watching events through Macbeth’s own shell-shocked mind, as his brain jumps back and forth, from close-up and intimate to distant and detached, some things taking longer to process than others; it’s telling that the witches appear to our hero after the initial battle sequence, almost a figment of his fraying imagination.
Fassbender immerses himself in the role with a military dedication, his macho, teeth-baring grimace and wide eyes a perfect fit for the PTSD sufferer. Keep your King Lear and your Hamlets; this, you sense, is the Shakespeare role destined for him. The rest of the cast are equally good, from David Thewlis as the fatherly King Duncan and Sean Harris’ grizzled Macduff to Paddy Considine (once again proving himself one of Britain’s most underrated character actors) as Banquo – a man whom, cruelly, Macbeth never seems to see without his son. And if Macbeth cannot have an heir, why should anyone else?
And amid this meaty, fleshy, muscle-bound drama, what of Lady Macbeth? This is the one apparent weakness of Kurzel’s movie: the script, by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, smartly tweaks the text to their own ends, but in doing so, reduces her role. But make no mistake: Marion Cotillard is sensational as Macbeth’s wife, who, like her husband, is more filled with sorrow than political scheming; this Lady Macbeth is maternal, not Machiavellian. Her iconic soliloquy is almost a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, but it’s also a truly original take on the familiar scene; her “Out, damned spot!” becomes less a hysterical cry of guilt and more a tragic sigh of grief.
For every beat that’s seemingly lacking, the screenplay keeps conspiring to give us back more with interest. The opening battle, which is merely described in the play, is not the only addition: halfway through, we see the demise of Macduff’s wife and children, something normally kept off-screen. Crucially, when it happens, Kurzel’s camera catches a change in Cotillard’s previously stoic face; a piece of characterisation that gives countless layers to Lady Macbeth’s madness.
With our lead couple steeped in realism as much as magic, Macbeth’s end becomes as inevitable as it is shockingly down-to-earth. The highlands, suddenly, seem the natural place to set such a bleak narrative. Throughout The Scottish Play, there is no sunshine to be seen; the only bright light comes from a blazing fire, as the blistering, witty finale sees our king descend into an intense inferno, raging at the world around him. Jed Kurzel’s score comes into its own here, the drums and cello crafting something oppressive and claustrophobic that your ears can’t escape; together with the beautiful visuals and stark performances, it creates a Macbeth that sounds elegant on paper, but winds up nerve-janglingly raw.
Kurzel concludes with the sight that has long escaped our hero; a child inheriting the world from his dad. But there is no royal hope to be had here: Macbeth presents us with a universe of bloodshed and betrayal, where the future can promise only more sound and fury. The result signifies something very special indeed. Haunting, dark and hypnotic, you’ve never seen Shakespeare like this.
Macbeth is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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