Director: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie and Todd Louiso (Screenplay) William Shakespeare (Play)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Sean Harris
Macbeth is arguably Shakespeare’s most iconic and most difficult play. Its big themes surrounding mortality, power and greed are universal and the reason why the play has gained an eternal legacy. Numerous adaptations of the Bard’s most gruesome and macabre piece of work have been made over the years, from Orson Welles’ visionary film in 1948 to Roman Polanski’s savage adaptation in 1971. In 2006 there was even a modernised Australian version with Sam Worthington as Macbeth, transforming him from a Scottish warrior to a Melbournian gangster. This time, it’s South Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel who is attempting to tackle the classic tale with a brutally confronting and gruelling adaptation providing a new vision of Macbeth audiences have never seen before.
For those who have never read Macbeth and only have a very basic understanding of its plot and themes, it must first be acknowledged that Kurzel’s adaptation doesn’t hold back in telling the story in rapid succession and brutal honesty. The film opens on two visions, one of extreme grief and another of extreme violence. In the vision of extreme grief we see Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) laying to rest their infant child, a scene especially created for this adaptation to perhaps gain the audience’s sympathies of this morally corrupted couple. The vision of extreme violence is a stylised, slow motion battle scene in which Kurzel nightmarishly paints the Scottish countryside with red and fills the sky with smoke.
Immediately after the battle, Macbeth is visited by three “witches”, who reveal to him a prophecy that he will soon become King of Scotland. Promoted to general of the Scottish army by King Duncan (David Thewlis), Macbeth returns home to his village and tells his wife about the prophecy. She convinces him to murder the visiting King Duncan so that the Macbeths can become royalty. Without much suspicion, Macbeth quickly ascends to the throne and fulfils the prophecy, but soon he becomes paranoid that others may stand in his way of keeping the throne.
Most would consider Macbeth a universal tale of one man’s fight to overcome greed and insanity, but under the guise of Kurzel it transcends into a tale of one man’s quest to yield to brutality and evil. The tragedy that runs through all of Shakespeare’s works is definitely underscored in Kurzel’s Macbeth, but its tragedy does not necessarily come from its main character. The most unusual change in Kurzel’s adaptation is the added sympathy the audience has for Lady Macbeth. In traditional adaptations she is power-hungry villain, almost like a pre-curser to a great noir femme fatale. But Kurzel has given his Lady Macbeth an added touch of humanity and suffering. Beyond her initial hunger for the throne, Lady Macbeth’s mind soon begins to unravel under the pressure of her husband’s insanity and greed. Her guilt is no better depicted than in a particularly haunting scene in the latter half of the film where Cotillard executes a hypnotising and despondent soliloquy in a rotting church. It seems like Cotillard was practically born to play Lady Macbeth and she steals every scene she’s in.
Fassbender is arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, yet his talents fail to shine in his portrayal of Macbeth. He portrays the maddening King with an over-zealous temperament that overwhelms the otherwise sombre mood of the film. His over-the-top performance would be more fitted to the freedom of a stage production and his delivery of some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines lacks depth and power, leaving the words to sink rather than soar. However, the supporting actors that fill Macbeth give performances that make up for Fassbender’s disappointing one. Sean Harris is absolutely extraordinary as Macduff, making him one of the most sympathetic characters seen on screens this year. Paddy Considine brings a subtle humility as Macbeth’s doomed ally Banquo and Thewlis does the best of what he has in the play’s most miniscule yet pivotal role as King Duncan.
Visually, Macbeth is an incredibly beautiful film. The Scottish highlands have never been so sweeping and majestic whilst also being overwhelming terrifying and unyielding. Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw has proven to be an emerging talent after photographing local films like Animal Kingdom and Kurzel’s Snowtown before moving on to successful international TV productions like Top of the Lake and True Detective. Of course it’s also incredibly exciting to see Justin Kurzel headline a “blockbuster” adaptation of one the world’s most famous plays. After being a much beloved talent in Australia since his breakthrough debut feature film Snowtown, Kurzel’s next project sees him teaming up with Fassbender and Cotillard again for an adaptation of the video game Assassin’s Creed. It seems like Hollywood isn’t that far away from South Australia after all.
Parts of Macbeth are cinematically masterful, yet others are over-the-top and close to being pretentious. Treading a thin line between art and over-ambition means that overall the film seems less fulfilling and unsatisfactory than it should be. Moments of artistic levity fall flat due to Fassbender’s disappointingly over-zealous performance, whilst the overall sombre look and tone of the film gives the audience a constant feeling of dread and despair, with an ending so horrific that it makes you never want to watch the film again. Ultimately, just like his vision for Snowtown, Kurzel’s Macbeth is truly beautifully ugly.