Shakespeare’s relationship with the big screen is an illustrious one. Many of his works have been adapted numerous times, with some of the more definitive adaptations coming from Kenneth Branagh. Macbeth is no stranger to the big screen with the likes of Orson Welles and Roman Polanski tackling arguably the Bard’s greatest tragedy, and now Australian director Justin Kurzel is the latest to tackle the tale of murderous ambition. What he has developed is a film of savage beauty that does the play extreme justice, bravely refusing to compromise and creating a pitch black descent into darkness.
When four mysterious women deliver a prophecy following a victorious battle, Lord Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is led to believe that he is destined to become King of Scotland. Pressured by his viscously determined wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth takes his destiny into his own hands by committing regicide and taking the throne. What follows is an existence consumed by paranoia, anxiety and fear, as Macbeth quickly begins to lose his mind, soon developing into a reign of terror.
Screen adaptations of Shakespeare have often worked better (at least box-office wise) when they’ve been re-imagined in another form, be it a high school comedy (10 Things I Hate About You) or Disney Animated flicks (The Lion King). There have been masterful adaptations, as many talented film-makers have fancied themselves worthy of adapting the Bard, but there has never been one quite like this. Both a very straight adaptation, and one which revises certain important details to establish clearer character motivations (the Macbeth’s are seen cremating their child at the start), and with the supernatural elements down played (no hubble and bubble here), Kurzel develops his Macbeth as a savage character study, one as willing to deliver awe-inspiring battle scenes as it is erotically charged manipulation.
The means in which the story develops is lifted entirely from the play with very little of the dialogue used changed from the text, meaning that it may prove difficult for those unprepared to wrestle with the language (as 15 cinema patrons demonstrated by leaving the film at various points, even with 10 minutes to go). It is a bold adaptation that refuses to compromise in the face of modern audience expectation. As a result, the film is a challenge, one that drags you down to its primal darkness and leaves you festering in the nightmarish fever dream that is Macbeth’s descent. It is a wholly unique experience and one that truly revels in the madness of its protagonist.
Kurzel directs with a striking visual distinctiveness, producing possibly the most vivid and beautiful film of the year thus far. Be it a battlefield bathed in a fiery glow, or the mud drenched skirmish of the opening battle, the film is very textured, distinctive and captivating. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, responsible for the equally earthy textures of True Detective and Animal Kingdom, does career-defining work here, and is another reason why we should be excited for his next collaboration with Kurzel, Fassbender and Cotillard on the upcoming Assassin’s Creed. It also marks another promising piece of orchestration from Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, who produces another brooding score following his stellar work on The Babadook.
A Shakespeare production, in any form, is nothing without worthy performances that are up to the task of bringing these tragic characters to life, and this Macbeth has some of the best performers of a generation at its disposal. With a subtle Scottish accent and piercing hollow eyes, Fassbender revels in the unravelling of Macbeth’s mind, transitioning from noble lord to tyrannical King with a potent ferocity. Cotillard, rather than turn to madness in quiet the aggressive way as Fassbender, quietly unravels in the background, slowly defeated by her own conscience. Cotillard is the more subtle performance, doing a great deal through facial gestures as well as building a manipulative relationship with Fassbender. Among the strong supporting cast, Sean Harris as MacDuff particularly stands out, equalling Fassbender’s ferocious energy and providing an unlikely hero within the proceedings.
Macbeth is a must for fans of the Bard, but it is also one of the more compelling cinematic experiences one can embark on at your local multiplex at this current time. It is an experience unlike any other this year, a challenging fever dream of a film which is more than happy to take you on a devilish ride, with bone crunching battle scenes and an uncompromising approach; it will most certainly go down as a Shakespeare adaptation by which others are matched by.
5/5- A visually striking and ferocious fever dream of an adaptation that rides high on impeccable performances and an uncompromising stylistic approach; bloody bold and resolute.