0372 | Macbeth

MacBethFassbender-xlarge(Warning: If you haven’t read Macbeth or watched an adaptation before and are intending to see this new film, please aware that I’ve discussed the plot openly below.)

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been adapted for the big screen many times before, most notably by Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosowa, yet this new version a suitably meaty and visually arresting piece by director Justin Kurzel certainly feels worthwhile enough. It has only been on general release for a few days but has already been attacked by fans of The Bard, with some expressing disappointment at the decision by writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie to include scenes that purport to answer long-standing academic speculation with regard to the childlessness of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), though claims that there is a lack of reverence for the original text at play seem over-the-top to me (and given the director’s nationality also seem to come replete with sneery anti-Australian undertones). In actual fact Kurzel and co have decided to stress the play’s connections with children throughout this adaptation, and Macbeth opens and closes with a pair of scenes that show how crucial they are to the play’s twin themes of fate and cyclical violence. The famous ‘Out, damned spot’ line is coupled with a disturbing image that suggests infanticide, while there are other less obvious touches, such as an increase in the number of the murdered offspring of Macduff (Sean Harris), that further emphasise the play’s focus on children.

Macbeth begins like a cross between Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and a hyper-stylized episode of Game Of Thrones, a TV show whose own writers have clearly been influenced by the Scottish play (see the most recent plot revolving around the character of Stannis Baratheon for several examples). Loyalists to King Duncan (David Thewlis) are led into battle by Macbeth and Banquo (Paddy Considine) and the subsequent clash with the traitorous Macdonwald and his army is loud, bloody and gory, the director occasionally opting for slow motion hacking and slashing. In the aftermath of the melee we see bodies strewn across 40bc840a534642dd5228b2ffe7dbe70fac69445c.jpg__1920x1080_q85_crop_upscalethe battlefield, some being picked at by wild dogs, and it’s clear that the play’s brutal acts will not be taking place off screen here, as per some other adaptations. And the violence keep on coming: Duncan’s murder is carried out, unusually, by a sole perpetrator and shown in detail, while Macduff’s family are gruesomely burnt at the stake. (It’s curious, then, that the climactic fight between Macduff and Macbeth is less bloody than you would expect. Set against a blood orange backdrop there are precise slashes, headbutts and bone-crunching punches, so you certainly feel the power of the two clashing figures, but it’s odd that Kurzel allows the head of this Macbeth to remain firmly attached to his shoulders.)

The mass fighting serves as parenthesis; for the rest of the film we’re watching duplicitous, smaller acts of violence. Naturally the story follows Macbeth’s interactions with the three witches, his subsequent traitorous seizing of the throne and his changing relationship with the complicit Lady Macbeth as Macbeth-paddythe titular character slowly goes mad. Fassbender is suitably intense, confident and muscular as power is snatched from Malcolm (Jack Reynor, recently excellent in Glassland) before the actor is forced to reveal Macbeth’s inner torment in a disappointingly obvious fashion (nightshirt hanging low, pacing up and down a room, talking to himself, etc). Cotillard is superb: she isn’t playing an evil schemer here and she is more understated than her fellow lead, though she shares almost as much screen time; this fine actress doesn’t demand the viewer’s attention and is often seen in the background or at Macbeth’s side, but her physical responses to the dialogue and facial gestures reveal just as much as anything that is spoken. Harris also impresses, though his decision to turn the intensity dial up to 11 at times will not be appreciated by everyone; in the final scenes it is his Macduff, and not Fassbender’s Macbeth, who interests the most, which shouldn’t really be the case.

For all the entertaining battle sequences, strong acting, period production design and magnificent scenery (with Northumberland’s striking Bamburgh Castle standing in for Dunsinane), the usual caveat applicable to (relatively) straightforward Shakespeare adaptations is worth mentioning: if you have an ear for the dialogue you’ll probably enjoy it, whereas if you don’t you may well struggle through long passages of this film. As a fairly short tragedy, though, Kurzel has wisely decided to rely on a strong visual element vistas of boggy moorland, witches in the mist, and so on)  and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, Kurzel’s previous film) is up to the challenge. This Macbeth looks good, even if there’s a teeny, tiny hint of Zack Snyder in there, and the quality of the acting will be discussed many years from now, while the score by Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother) even surpasses his earlier work on The Babadook.

Directed by: Justin Kurzel.
Written by: Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie. Based on Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Reynor, Lochlann Harris.
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw.
Editing: Chris Dickens.
Music: Jed Kurzel.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Year: 2015.

Comments 14

  1. Writer Loves Movies October 5, 2015

    Interesting review Stu. It might not follow the play to the letter, but I find the angle of childlessness from which Kurzel approaches the text a very powerful one. That the Macbeths fill the void in their lives with ambition makes their actions easier to comprehend (but no easier to witness). I like what you say about the cyclical nature of violence too – I hadn’t really thought about it in this way – but you’re spot on.

    • Stu October 6, 2015

      Thanks Natalie; I see you’ve reviewed it too, I’ll have a read in a minute! I quite liked the way the childlessness angle was used too, particularly because it’s a consistent part of the film rather than just one scene at the start. I thought it was a very strong adaptation overall; there was arguably a lack of drama surrounding Lady Macbeth’s death, and I started to feel that the director was more interested in Macduff by the end, but some strong acting on show nevertheless.

      • Writer Loves Movies October 6, 2015

        I tend to agree with you on Lady Macbeth’s death – I was actually quite surprised it happened so quickly. That said it’s mostly quite a bold adaptation that demands you sit up and take notice, which I like very much. I have a feeling this one will be amongst my favourite films of the year.

        • Stu October 6, 2015

          Yeah, and (kind of) offscreen too, when the director had been showing quite a lot of the action that’s off-stage in the play (well, as much as I remember, anyway). He has made a lot of effort to distinguish his adaptation from others.

  2. Mark Walker October 5, 2015

    Good stuff, bud. I’m a huge fan of Billy Shakey and this one’s right up my street. Can’t get enough of The Fass these days either. Can’t wait to catch this.

    On a side note, have you stopped eating your reviews? I didn’t catch a rating anywhere.

    • Stu October 6, 2015

      It’s well worth seeing Mark; a heavy duty adaptation and I think Cotillard is outstanding as usual and Fassbender very good too; like you I’m happy to see anything he’s in at the moment. Did you catch Slow West?
      I ditched the ratings a few months back. I think we’ve talked about the whole rating thing in the past but I just got to the point where I’d had enough. Weirdly it has been quite liberating but between you and me I’d give this a solid 8.5 out of 10!

      • Mark Walker October 6, 2015

        Yeah, man. I understand about the whole ratings deal. It can cause some difficulty sometimes.

        Haven’t seen Slow West yet but it’s on my list. I’ll watch anything with Fassy. It’s between him and Tom Hardy for the most exciting actor around just now.

        • Stu October 6, 2015

          It’s impossible to second guess either of them! I’m glad Fassbender is picking stuff like Frank or Slow West, and glad Hardy is combining the big box office films with the likes of Locke. They’ve got good agents!

        • Mark Walker October 6, 2015

          Loved Frank and Locke. In fact, a review of Locke is my next post and you’ve practically just quoted my opening paragraph. I actually mention the same thing about Hardy’s bigger movies and his commitment to smaller projects as well. I like actors that don’t forget to do smaller pieces of work. It shows class!

        • Stu October 6, 2015

          Cool, I’ll look out for it. I agree, too, it shows they’re after good scripts and up for working with interesting directors.

  3. ckckred October 6, 2015

    Nice review man. Not sure when this is coming out here in the US, but I do like some Shakespeare and I have the versions of MacBeth by Orson Welles and Roman Polanski on DVD that I still need to see.

    • Stu October 6, 2015

      Ah cool! The Polanski version is my favourite, although it has been a long time since I watched it. This is up there with the better adaptations so hopefully you’ll get to see it soon. Thanks Charles.

    • Stu October 12, 2015

      It’s just a little bit Zack Snyder! The slo-mo battle sequences had a similar kind of style to 300. I don’t think any of us want to see Snyder Does Shakespeare!

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