There is very little in mainstream western literature with such a streak of nihilism as Macbeth. The lead character is an irredeemable monster, created by his overly ambitious schemer of a wife, and the legacy he leaves is of a barren, wasted Scotland. The kingship Malcolm (Jack Reynor), son of the murdered Duncan (David Thewlis), inherits is hardly desirable, and that is never felt more keenly than in the final act of this new adaptation. As Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Macduff (Sean Harris) fight to decide the future of their homeland, it becomes clear that whoever wins will govern not a nation, but an extension of Hell itself.
Justin Kurzel’s gorgeous, hallucinatory take on Shakespeare’s most accessible and exciting play is perhaps even less hopeful than its source material, but no less exciting for it. When we see Banquo (Paddy Considine) out riding with his son, or hear of Macbeth’s plans of revenge against Macduff, it simultaneously sets the heart racing and stops it with a cold dread. The hints of levity are completely stripped away, the bawdy porter is cut out and the pre-murder celebrations of Duncan at the Macbeth home (a series of elaborate tents here, rather than a conventional castle) are framed sombrely. This is a Macbeth for a more insecure, cynical Britain, adding a fresh relevance to a work that’s now over 400 years old.
Any new adaptation of Shakespeare has to prove its right to exist. There are countless tellings and retellings of these stories, and it’s not like Macbeth in particular needs the extra publicity drive. Luckily, Kurzel absolutely earns this right, by making his version utterly cinematic. The vast majority of what he does here could never be achieved on stage, from stunningly ambitious visuals to the excellent editing work that accompanies the soliloquies. As Macbeth mentally tortures himself before entering Duncan’s chambers, the combined work of Kurzel, editor Chris Dickens, and, of course, Michael Fassbender gives us a unique insight into the man’s fractured psyche.
The less than two hour run time combined with a sparse use of Shakespeare’s words is likely to aggravate any Bard purists, and means that this Macbeth is probably not quite the ‘definitive’ version, as arbitrary and transient as such a title is with a Shakespeare adaptation. Given that it’s based on a play by one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, there’s a surprising amount of silence, as Kurzel takes time to appreciate the awe-inspiring scenery of the wilds of Scotland.
Kurzel’s first film, Snowtown, a brutally uncompromising look at the work of a real-life Australian serial killer, established him as someone with an eye for the evils human beings are capable of. It’s no great surprise that he would be drawn to Macbeth, although, even with its increased bleakness, he never equals the sheer stomach-turning horribleness of his debut. That’s no bad thing, and Macbeth never becomes unwatchably depressing or nasty, even in its most infamous moments. In great part, this is due to Marion Cotillard’s fantastic performance as Lady Macbeth, giving real human emotion to one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating and powerful female characters. Her reactions to her husband’s descent into pure villainy are believably terrified and grief-stricken, not to mention tinged with self-disgust for her role in it all.
Kurzel and his screenwriting team – Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie, and Todd Louiso – make their first departure from the text the very second the film opens, with a funeral for the infant child of the Macbeths. It’s an event only hinted at in the play, and is therefore conducted entirely wordlessly. It’s a decision that may prove divisive, but gives the usurping couple more believability, the hunt for ultimate unending power filling the hole that they were ready for their son to occupy. We’re then thrown into more familiar territory, the battle ‘lost and won’. The use of colour is immediately striking, half the field exhaustingly grey with the fog and dust of war, the other half a sickly green, occupied by the witches who tell Macbeth of his fate.
Even more so than in most takes on Macbeth, this battle is a vital scene-setter. Not only does it kick off the plot, but it helps us understand what drives Fassbender’s version of the role. He’s clearly suffering from severe PTSD, haunted by those he killed and those he failed to save, and Fassbender pulls this off magnificently. It’s a restrained and subtle performance, but the ever-growing madness behind his eyes is chilling, enough that you forgive the occasional slip in his Scottish brogue.
Most of the actors suffer a similar problem, actually, Cotillard seemingly not even attempting the accent, and Thewlis in particular struggling to keep it up. It becomes even more obvious when actual Scots appear on screen, and does at those points pull you out of an otherwise very immersive world. For the most part, the effect is negligible; it’s a highly capable cast and even the more plot-device roles like Banquo and Malcolm are given depth and life by Considine and Reynor respectively.
The story of Macbeth is widely known, and hardly needs recounting here, but Kurzel does find room to manoeuvre. Most notably, it is Macbeth himself who carries out the murders of Macduff’s wife and young children, perhaps the most unforgivable act ever carried out by a Shakespearian character. Credit must also be given here to Sean Harris as Macduff, who plays what must be a nearly impossible scene of finding out about his family’s death note-perfectly. Lady Macbeth’s ‘out damn spot’ speech is also relocated to outside the castle, her eventual death very different in style (and less convincing) than the original text.
Whilst all of the first and second acts are good to great, it’s in the final third that the film becomes truly exceptional. The music and visuals, impressive enough in their own right, become properly tied to the text, as Kurzel’s inspired take on bringing Burnham Wood to Dunsinane spells the end for Macbeth in the most spectacular possible fashion.
The entire film looks impeccable, with a sense of scale that, of all the many Shakespeare films, only Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V or Akira Kurosawa’s Ran can really match. Old Scotland is a wild and unforgiving place, from the blinding mists of the heath to the massive and lonely halls of the residence of the king. Even Macbeth’s crown is stark and unembellished, completely jewel-free and seemingly carved out of thick chunks of bone. Every blow of the battles and murders is felt, the gruesome sound effects helping the audience understand just how much of a psychological toll war has had on everyone involved. For the most part, Kurzel shies away from the surrealism that the story’s supernatural elements can offer. He allows himself one true dream sequence, a procession of men enveloped in yellow fog warning Macbeth to beware Macduff bringing to mind John Singer Sargent’s World War 1 masterwork, Gassed, as well as much of the poetry of Wilfred Owen.
All of this pales in comparison to the beauty of the Macbeth’s final reckoning. If the First World War seems to have inspired much of what came before, the film’s magnificent close has far more in common with the Renaissance view of Hell. The world’s greatest sinner is judged by the man he’s wronged most and sentenced to death, whilst ash and a flaming sky in this world act as a preview for the rest of the king-killer’s eternity.
This final confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff is almost transcendent, you imagine this could have been exactly what Shakespeare had in mind when writing the scene. Silhouettes move in and out of the burning frame, the final coup de grâce of a recurring motif of blackened souls. No other film this year, apart from maybe Mad Max: Fury Road, has managed such a remarkably symbolic joining of themes and visuals. As both a purely cinematic experience and a thrilling revitilisation of Shakespeare on screen, Macbeth is one of 2015’s most essential films.