Of all of William Shakespeare’s beloved works, few translate to the screen as well as ‘Macbeth’. It helps that the play was one the Bard’s shortest and it’s also the closest thing Shakespeare ever came to delivering an exploitation movie.
The best cinematic adaptations of the tale have come from filmmakers working halfway between art and sleaze. Orson Welles pulled his version from the shadowy low budget ingenuity of film noir. Akira Kurosawa gave the story a nasty samurai twist, and Roman Polanski turned it into a bloody British folk horror tale (as well as a therapeutic rallying cry after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate). Now we have a new ‘Macbeth’ for the ‘Game of Thrones’ era, which is a wholly appropriate environment for another round of “The Scottish Play.” The only question mark is director Justin Kurzel, who has but a single feature to his name (the brilliant, if almost unbearably disturbing ‘Snowtown’). Thankfully, he doesn’t disappoint.
It seems odd to do, but I suppose a little plot summary is in order in the name of movie review convention. Michael Fassbender stars as Macbeth, a Scottish thane who rises in rank following a bloody battle and is promised to rise even further by a trio of witches he meets in the aftermath. He scoffs at the thought, but his gently vicious wife (Marion Cotillard) feels far more confident about her husband’s newfound ambition. Together they plot to murder the king (David Thewis) to hasten Macbeth’s ascension. Needless to say, it’s a bad idea that can’t possibly end well. So there you go. If you missed the high school English class covering ‘Macbeth’, you’re all caught up. (Pretty cool/bloody story, huh? I’ll bet you wish you’d put up with the old-timey English readings now!)
While Kurzel obviously doesn’t make any massive deviations from the text, he very much presents his own version of the tale. A new prologue and epilogue recasts the Macbeths as bereaved parents suffering a devastating lost before the story even begins. Kurzel then dives headfirst into a bloody, grueling opening battle that doesn’t just set the tone for the intense film to follow, but births a Macbeth who seems to be suffering from PTSD.
The supernatural element is here too, yet toned down. Lady Macbeth isn’t the brooding, manipulatively evil (if tragic) figure that she’s often been presented as in the past. Instead, she too is suffering from a blow, just less so than her husband. There’s a sense that the duo aren’t in their right minds for painfully sad reasons outside of their own control. It’s an intriguing shift for Kurzel to present, and it allows him to play down the haunting and psychotic nature of the story to create more tragically flawed antiheroes.
The filmmaker also doubles down on spectacle, delivering an absolutely stunning film to behold visually. Violence is covered with grit and grime to always feel painful, nasty and abhorrently dirty. The battle scenes play out on a grand scale, with the skies painted red in the finale to pull the audience into Macbeth’s completely warped worldview. It’s a tremendously impressive film technically, but thankfully that doesn’t overshadow the performances for the sake of spectacle.
Fassbender is extraordinary in the title role, showing his character painfully devolve into madness. He’s acting outside of his own control and lost in deeply unsettling manner that Fassbender achieves through viscerally physical forms of performance. Cotillard is equally strong, but more subdued. She’s quietly damaged rather than devious, and it’s equally difficult to dismiss her descent. Kurzel also cast other brilliant British character actors like Thewlis, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris to great snarling effect. Everyone comes out to play in this gritty, nasty, growling version of the classic, but as always the central couple steal the show.
Kurzel has created a visually compelling rendition of ‘Macbeth’ filled with harsh explosions of violence and subdued, stripped-down storytelling. It’s a wonderful film and an intriguing take on an old tale. However, it’s not the finest cinematic ‘Macbeth’ we’ve seen. The PTSD reading might succeed in adding empathy to Macbeth’s tragic downfall, but it also robs Lady Macbeth of much of her power as a character. Cotillard is wonderful and ideally cast, but her quietly damaged wife on the sidelines doesn’t quite feel like an ideal version of the character. Likewise, as grandiose a vision as Kurzel has served up, it doesn’t quite match the hallucinogenic horrors of Polanski’s version or the epic insanity of Kurosawa’s take.
Still, even if Kurzel’s film lands fourth or fifth on the list of ‘Macbeth’ adaptations, that still makes it one of the most satisfying cinematic stabs at Shakespeare, particularly in recent years. The film won’t be a blockbuster, but anyone who wants proof that top tier genre thrills can still exist in iambic pentameter need look no further than this haunting update of the Scottish Play.