MACBETH (Cert. 15)
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriters: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie & Todd Louiso
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis
Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Maybe it’s some residue from theatrical superstitions about “the Scottish play” never to be named aloud, but film versions of Macbeth appear far more sporadically than fellow Shakespearean heavyweights, Hamlet, Othello or Romeo and Juliet. This relative absence of potentially the Bard’s most mystical and visceral tragedy is a shame; but also an opportunity, as taken by Orson Welles in 1952 and Roman Polanski in 1971, to make a generation-defining interpretation. It’s one that’s similarly been grabbed by the scruff of the neck by Australian director Justin Kurzel. Cloaked in thick Scotch mist, whipped by chill Highland winds, mired in the mud, warpaint and blood of brutal battle, this is a truly elemental version, that both pares down and honours the original play, while still innovating ways to make the text its own.
It’s evident from the very first scene, which ditches the infamous three witches, to re-enact the (unwritten) burial of the Macbeths’ infant son. And quickly followed by a ferocious opening battle, passages rendered in extreme slow motion echoing the violence congealing through Macbeth’s shell-shocked mind, which makes Braveheart’s combat scenes look like Brigadoon. Instead of a wanton, scheming Lady Macbeth, Kurzel, his adapters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and (High Fidelity’s Barry!) Todd Louiso and their leading lady Marion Cotillard offer us an grief-numbed opportunist desperate to reconnect with her spouse at any cost, to fill the void left by their loss. Later, when Macbeth has finally murdered his king Duncan (David Thewlis), to fulfil the prophecies that proclaim him a future ruler, his post-mortem soliloquy is interrupted by, and goadingly performed to, Duncan’s son Malcolm (Jack Reynor), himself too shaken by the crime scene to do anything but flee in terror.
To reveal more of Kurzel and his team’s inspired deviations would be unjust. Suffice it to say, as with his unrelenting feature debut, true-crime horror show Snowtown, Kurzel’s work crackles with missionary-like intensity, so much so that his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s climactic scenes are bathed in a sunburnt-orange, suggesting a world already gone to hell with its cursed protagonist. It’s a film whose poetry is as much filmic as literary.
That said, the verse is well handled by a distinctly non-Scottish (though Irish, English, French, Australian) leading cast. Fassbender, with his soulful yet predatory demeanour, is exactly the man you’d want to “Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it.” It’s yet another triumph for an actor on an unprecedented run of success, even if his more hot-button role as Steve Jobs is likely to be this year’s chosen award contender. Cotillard, too, is ideal casting, although the shift in this power couple’s dynamic both dilutes some of the role’s primal power and the duo’s mutual charisma. Still, the thought of the pair of them reteaming with Kurzel for next year’s Assassin’s Creed tantalisingly suggests a video game adaptation finally worthy of the big screen.
Occasionally, the relentlessly emphatic style does stomp Shakespeare into the ground and some of the liberties taken with the text itself backfire, notably the way Macbeth’s Act V “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” eulogy stumbles ungainly along. No matter. If “vaulting ambition” is how one measures Macbeth, then Kurzel’s take, full of sound and fury, signifies a worthy companion to Welles, Polanski and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood; itself an apt alternative title to this brutal, bold and thrilling filmmaking.