William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ is easily one of the mightiest creative achievements in our history. Vicious, tight and unforgiving, it somehow manages to examine fundamental and disturbing ideas of human nature whilst being enormously thrilling and genuinely unsettling. Even after 400 years, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power. Its translations to the screen however haven’t been quite so memorable. Roman Polanski gave it one hell of a shot in 1971, and Akira Kurosawa did likewise in 1957, but most versions have disappeared into the ether. The most recent, the ‘Aussie Macbeth’ in 2006, is easily one of the worst films ever made. So when it was announced that ‘Snowtown’ director Justin Kurzel was tackling Shakespeare’s masterpiece with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as his Lord and Lady Macbeth, expectations went through the roof. Could we finally get the definitive adaptation we’ve been waiting for?
Bucking the modern trend, Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’ retains the medieval Scottish setting, a haunted landscape of mountains and moors, mud and rain, dirt and blood. After a mysterious prediction made to him by three witches that he will one day be King of Scotland, Macbeth (Fassbender) and his wife (Cotillard) conspire to assassinate King Duncan (David Thewlis) and through deception and lies claim his throne. However, with the secret of their actions turning to overwhelming paranoia, Macbeth begins to slide towards madness, threatening to take the kingdom down with him.
What strikes one most about Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’ is its unrelenting bleakness - there are no moments of respite or breath in this film. From the first striking images, it hurtles towards its catastrophic climax like a kind of haunted fever dream. Screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have stripped Shakespeare’s text to the bone, wherever possible allowing the tools of cinema to tell the story visually where words would have before. It’s a remarkable adaptation, offering genuine insight and unexpected interpretations into some of the most famous characters and speeches in world literature. ‘Macbeth’ is one of my favourite plays, and yet I found myself gasping in surprise at some of the decisions they had made, each as well-considered and daring as the last. All the humour has been stripped from it, but with this version of ‘Macbeth’, there really is no place for it. Kurzel’s first film, ‘Snowtown’ (2011) is amongst the darkest films of this century, so its little wonder that ‘Macbeth’ follows close behind. It’s bloody, violent and densely psychological, and also achieves something very few adaptations of the play have achieved: that of making you feel deeply uncomfortable. Where others have often played it as a kind of action film, Kurzel crafts ‘Macbeth’ into something more akin to a horror film. It makes it initially quite difficult to penetrate or comprehend, but once it settles in, like deep rot, it festers in the mind.
The craft on display here is beyond reproach. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw is responsible for the remarkable visuals for ‘Snowtown’, ‘Animal Kingdom’, ‘Lore’ and ‘True Detective’, but his work here on ‘Macbeth’ is possibly his finest yet. What sets this adaptation apart is how it embraces cinema as opposed to simply shooting the play, and Arkapaw is heavily responsible for that. The photography in this film is staggering, dark and textured and shockingly modern, especially when combined with the incredible medieval production design from Fiona Crombie. Kunzel directs with a tight first, always holding the film back from overblowing with emotion or sentiment. Everything about this film is taut and contained, and while this occasionally makes for some unsatisfying moments and an exhausting viewing experience, at other times it falls into the sublime.
What strikes one most about Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’ is its unrelenting bleakness - there are no moments of respite or breath in this film.
As you would expect, the performances are exceptional. Fassbender is a powerful Macbeth, intensely masculine and powerful when we meet him, and unnervingly broken as his madness sets in. Cotillard though is something else entirely - a breathtaking Lady Macbeth, impossibly complex and detailed. Watching her chew and savour Shakespeare’s text is one of the most arousing delights of cinema this year. You simply can’t take your eyes off her. Together, they form a powerhouse team brimming with chemistry and danger, each pushing the other further and further. The supporting cast are likewise excellent, especially Paddy Considine as Macbeth’s best friend Banquo, the first to see the rot setting in, and Sean Harris as Macduff, who suffers the most at the sword of Macbeth’s madness.
With all the pieces so beautifully in place though, is this the definitive ‘Macbeth’? Well... not quite. There’s something amiss about Kurzel’s vision, though it isn’t entirely clear what that actually is. Perhaps the unrelenting bleakness of the film is ultimately too much to take, even if there are moments in the film that could not be more perfect. I left my first viewing a tad bewildered, unsure what I felt, and even though I left my second far more satisfied and engaged with it, there was still something missing. This kind of overwhelming darkness worked so beautifully in ‘Snowtown’, but maybe it’s just a bit much here. Maybe more light and shade could have made this ‘Macbeth’ all the more powerful.
That said, if it isn’t definitive, Justin Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’ is still one of the best. There are moments in this film that still haunt me, images impossible to shake off. ‘Macbeth’ is probably Shakespeare’s finest work, and what Kurzel, his cast and crew have done is take everything that makes it a masterpiece and adapted it beautifully into the language of cinema. It leaves you breathless, broken and disturbed, but that’s what ‘Macbeth’ should do. There’s no finer examination of the dark bile that courses through the human soul, and this remarkable film lays it out for us to witness in all its bloody beauty.