Film Review – Macbeth
Ahh, good old William Shakespeare. In all of history, Shakespeare stands as one of the most adapted writers. At this point, it’s redundant to even go into how he influenced the countless writers, actors, and directors on both the stage and the big screen. Every few years there seems to be a new update on one of his classic plays. Macbeth (2015) is no exception. Directed by Justin Kurzel and screenplay credits going to Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso, this latest iteration does pretty good work with the material, although I don’t think it’s going to win any new fans. All of the themes of a Shakespeare tragedy are here: love, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, madness, anger, revenge – you know, the usual stuff.
For those not initiated, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is the Thane of Glamis in Scotland, soldier to King Duncan (David Thewlis). After a brutal battle, Macbeth and his comrade Banquo (Paddy Considine) come across a group of witches who prophesize that Macbeth will soon become the next king. Influenced by his wife Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth kills the king while asleep, taking the crown for himself. But what they thought would be a swift and easy rule spirals out of control quickly. Both Macbeth and his wife wrestle with the guilt of what they’ve done, and go to extreme measures to maintain their grip over the kingdom.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell, all of the other details you can find at your local library. Because the story of Macbeth is so familiar and has been covered before, what needs to work here is in the execution. The first thing to notice is the strength of the cast. There are some darn good actors and actresses working here, and each one brings talent to the roles. Supporting players like the previously mentioned Paddy Considine, or Sean Harris as Macduff, all stand out in their respective parts. Fassbender is excellent as the titular character. As Macbeth, Fassbender delivers a great range of emotion. He exudes strength and courage, but also equally expresses the paranoia and madness that creeps upon Macbeth in later stages. Marion Cotillard may be the highlight of the whole cast. Often Lady Macbeth has been portrayed or remembered as the conniving manipulator to her husband. What Cotillard brings is vulnerability. She plays the part with multiple levels, especially during the moment where Lady Macbeth realizes what she’s done and how much her husband has fallen into darkness.
Justin Kurzel’s direction drops this story in a dark, dank, and muggy Scotland. The cinematography (by Adam Arkapaw) is often dreary, but then will flood the images with a solid bright color, like red or orange. Battle scenes occasionally shift into super slow motion, capturing shots that appear like it came from an oil painting. Jed Kurzel’s music is booming and unsettling. All this combined creates an aesthetic that resembles a dream, or more appropriately, a nightmare. The closest comparison I can make would be Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). By the time we enter the final act, the atmosphere is otherworldly, a surrealistic fantasy drenched in blood and muck.
But as much as the visuals support the material, the most important element at play (the dialogue) has been mismanaged. Obviously, Shakespeare was famous for his unique use of syntax, but Kurzel stumbles because he has the performers whisper nearly all of it. Regardless of the location or emotional importance of a scene, the characters perform the words with hushed expression. Shakespeare’s words may already be tough to handle for your average viewer, but combined with barely being audible makes it even more difficult to engage with. The approach severely takes away from the poignancy of any given scene. Two of the more famous sequences (one involving a dinner and another featuring a Lady Macbeth monologue) don’t have the power it should. It has nothing to do with the actors, who certainly do the best they can, but almost every word is spoken as though told in secret. Although there is a haunting quality imbued, the effect is dissipated because everyone is talking under bated breath. None of Shakespeare’s words come across with any type of resonance.
Macbeth exists for fans of Shakespeare who are inclined to see what this version has to offer. For everyone else, this might be somewhat of a drag to get through. For those interested, I find Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1961) to be one of the best adaptations of this play and worth checking out. While this film may not be great, I do think Justin Kurzel has a great film in him. Maybe it’ll be the next one, or the one after that, he certainly has the tools to do it. His work here is stylistic but not flashy, and every technical flourish is employed for the betterment of the story. I just wish everybody spoke up a little bit more.