Justin Kurzel, an Australian director (Snowtown), is the latest filmmaker to tackle Shakespeare’s Macbeth, adding his name to an impressive list of directors including Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa. Kurzel’s approach is to infuse the play with brutal violence and beautiful shots of the Scottish region that are impossible to achieve on stage, making this adaptation the most cinematic, but regrettably leaving some aspects of the play behind.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard play the central couple, and each are outstanding in their own way. Fassbender brings his impressive physicality to the role of Macbeth – his strength and presence are felt, especially on the battlefield, but as the play goes on we see his body mirror his mental deterioration. Cotillard, on the other hand, gives a reserved performance for a character that is easy to play over-the-top. Many of the scenes featuring her are shot fairly simply but they are nevertheless fantastic; In one of the best moments of the film Kurzel lets the camera stay on Cotillard’s face while she gives a speech, portraying a vast range of emotions while tears stream down her face. There are no real missteps from the cast, which is rounded out with supporting roles from Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Duncan. The words of Shakespeare are handled well, although there is a tendency among nearly everyone to either whisper and mumble the lines or scream them.
Right away, the film distinguishes itself from all the Macbeths that have come before by opening with a shot Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s lifeless child. It then goes a step further and puts a battle, which has only ever been mentioned in past iterations, on screen. The battle showcases what the movie does so well, but also where it struggles. It is a brutal sequence – the camera lingers on the intense looks on the men’s faces, blood spurts all over the battlefield, the deaths are gruesome. There is blood and dirt everywhere and the film does an impressive job of making the audience feel those elements viscerally, bringing a gritty realness to the otherwise heightened reality of the play. But the extent to which Kurzel wants the audience to feel the brutality of this scene is precisely where the film falters. Every shot is treated with a heaviness that works in these opening scenes, which grows tiresome when it continues for the entire film without a moment of relaxation. Further, the multiple sequences shot in extreme slow-motion begin to feel excessive. Moreover, up through this battle, we have yet to really meet any of the characters or get to the text of the play. It is this insistence on intensity over character or emotion that defines the film.
The emotional arcs of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem muddled and mishandled. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the psychological turmoil of war that Macbeth experiences, but his downward spiral into madness and despair is not entirely convincing. The film relies on an existing knowledge of where the play is headed in order to jump down into Macbeth’s madness, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. Likewise, Lady Macbeth is not really given enough time to struggle with her actions, so her journey is not fully believable either. It is a testament to the quality of the rest of the film that it is almost irrelevant that the central emotional journeys are not satisfying. Some of the best touches from Kurzel are liberties he takes with the text, most of which are to make the play more cinematic. There are several key scenes where characters see deaths that were originally off stage. The voyeurism of cinema is flipped from an element of pleasure into a horrific experience over which the character has no control. The trauma comes not from hearing about these deaths or seeing the bodies but from watching murder and seeing the gore. Kurzel’s decision to have Birnam Wood set on fire is a stroke of pure genius, aided by the cinematography of Adam Arkapaw. The red filter that covers the climactic scene reminds the audience that this film is drenched in blood. It might be too overt in another film, but it is handled with such beauty that it is impressive and works perfectly.
The impression that remains at the end of Macbeth has nothing to do with the characters or emotion. It is a visceral experience, shot masterfully. The lingering images are those of the beautiful yet unsettling landscapes of Scotland and the grisly, burnt battlefields. While some adaptations of Macbeth make you want to shower due to the depravity of its characters, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth will make you want to shower because you feel the dirt, blood, and ash that permeates the film.