Murder, prophetic witches, murder, one of the greatest female roles, a madman twisted with ambition, and a bit more murder: Macbeth has always been my favourite Shakespeare play. Its bloodlust and supernatural elements give it a unique aura and special place in our psyche.
It is testament to the depth of Shakespeare’s writing that Marion Cotillard recently described Lady Macbeth as ‘the darkest of roles’; but also that Justin Kurzel was able to produce another new adaptation that feels both fresh and menacing. This was by no means an easy feat: but by focusing chiefly upon atmosphere and exploring new themes, Kurzel has managed to pull off what could well become one of the defining Shakespeare adaptations of this generation.
One of the most significant aspects toward the atmosphere of the film was the setting. At first I wasn’t sure about Macbeth having an encampment rather than his claustrophobic castle, but the vast, wild, and at times beautiful Scottish plains work tremendously well: emphasising the sense that the characters are far more vulnerable both the natural and supernatural elements. The new landscape is also in stark contrast to Macduff’s castle later in the film, which is similar at times to a Christian cathedral inside, and seems almost hollow and cold: an empty reward for Macbeth’s bloody deeds.
Much has been made of Kurzel’s interpretation that Macbeth is suffering from post-traumatic stress, and though I was admittedly sceptical how well this would be pulled off, the end result is truly impressive. By blending this with Macbeth’s twisted ambition, gradual descent into madness, and also the loss of his child at the start of the film, Kurzel has successfully added a new and fascinating layer to this already timeless character. Perhaps what makes this so effective is how it seems to blend seamlessly with the witch’s prophecies: they work together in a melting pot of madness, rather than diluting their importance through modern psychology.
The loss of the child not only helps explain Macbeth’s ruthlessness towards his former friend Banquo, but also helps us to understand the motivation behind arguably the most important character in the entire story: Lady Macbeth. Her ruthlessness and thirst for power are given new meaning, for she is embittered by a world that took away her only child; as with Macbeth, this new-found understanding does not detract from her stature, but helps bring the audience a step closer to her evil.
If it is these subtle interpretations which have helped propel Kurzon’s Macbeth to new dramatic heights, it is the distinct lack of subtlety and ferociousness of the violence which helps modernise it in a powerful way. With the likes of Game of Thrones trying to out gore itself on a series-by-series basis, we are becoming more and more desensitized to (and in my case a bit bored with) such violence: which is exactly why this interpretation works so well. Some would rather see a Shakespearean adaptation buck this trend; but the ferocity which Macbeth murders King Duncan, and his brutality towards Macduff’s wife and children, is not violence for violence’s sake: it helps bring us closer to the shock and horror that these events would have caused in Shakespearean England.
And the icing on top of this murderous and bloody cake? The casting of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Fasssbender gives a commanding performance, though arguably with a bit too much shouting and not enough subtlety during Macbeth’s earlier internal conflict. Largely though his charisma and presence are engrossing, none more so in the ‘the Queen is dead’ scene, which was extraordinary in both its power and discomfort.
But while Fassbender was impressive as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard, as she often is, was almost faultless in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. She is quite simply a fantastic Lady Macbeth, making full use of her almost unrivalled ability to display depths of emotion without uttering a word: she is the most mesmerising part of a truly brilliant film.
There were only a few elements to Macbeth which I did not enjoy, all of which are fairly minor. I do not like slow motion action sequences in virtually any film: they strike me as cheesy, lame, and although we get to see additional gory detail, I don’t think it adds anything to the proceedings. (The violent scenes mentioned earlier had far more of an impact and did not rely on any gimmicky technological tricks.) Similarly I didn’t like the text on-screen toward the start, which did give a little bit of the story, but I’m still not sure it was entirely necessary. And finally, Macbeth took too long to die. Yes, obviously it’s a big deal, but it just felt a bit drawn out (even Maximus’s death in Gladiator didn’t get this much screen-time).
Other than these points though, and that I would have liked to have seen more of Lady Macbeth (out of pure greed than anything else), Macbeth was one of the most impressive films I have seen in the cinema for sometime.
Brutal, powerful, disturbing, and all set within a deeply atmospheric setting along with some truly impressive acting: Macbeth could well be this generation’s definitive adaptation of one our most famous plays.