A film review by Craig J. Koban January 8, 2016

RANK: 14

MACBETH jjj
½   

2015, no MPAA rating, 113 mins.

 

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth  /  Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth  /  David Thewlis as Duncan  /  Paddy Considine as Banquo  /  Jack Reynor as Malcolm  /  Sean Harris as Macduff  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff  /  David Hayman as Lennox

Directed by Justin Kurzel  /  Written by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie, based on William Shakespeare's play

I’m not sure why, but of all of William Shakespeare's plays that I read throughout my high school life it was MACBETH that resonated the most deeply and intimately with me.  

His historical Scotland set tragedy tackles weighty psychological themes of personal and political ambition run horrible afoul, not to mention that it's a stunning portrait of the unraveling of one man's sanity.  What’s especially noteworthy is the fact that very few cinematic adaptations of the play have been executed over the years, the most memorable being Roman Polanski’s 1971 iteration and the troubled Orson Welles 1948 effort.  Frankly, there have been so many countless films based on The Bard’s work over the last several decades that any new film trying to inject some much needed vitality into the proceedings is an incredibly daunting challenge to say the least. 

The new blood spattered, passionately rendered, and impeccably performed MACBETH does indeed take some dramatic liberties with Shakespeare’s original story (then again, what movie adaptation hasn’t?), but what’s most important is that director Justin Kurzel brings a considerable amount of stylistic flair and grandiosity to his film.   This MACBETH – beyond any other silver screen version of the play, or any other adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, for that matter – is a forebodingly gorgeous assault on the senses and spares little expense at capturing a near hallucinatory and nightmarish aura to the whole film.  Kurzel also has found remarkable actors to populate key roles here, with the likes of Oscar nominees Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, both of whom play up to the overt theatricality of their respective parts while grounding them in a plausible level of internalized dread.  With a positively riveting sense of aesthetic design and the unendingly powerful tandem of Fassbender and Cotillard, this MACBETH has a propulsive level of intrigue that I’ve not felt in a Shakespearean film adaptation in a long time. 

 

 

More than perhaps any other MACBETH film, this one feels the most rough, rugged, and tangibly lived in.  We get thrust into the particulars of the story with a headstrong tenacity and immediacy as we meet General Macbeth (Fassbender) in the heart of Scotland as he wages wars for King Duncan (David Thewlis), showcased in many of the film’s barbarically beautiful action sequences.  When he learns of the loss of his child with Lady Macbeth (Cotillard), Macbeth’s mind begins to unravel in costly ways.  He begins to have visions of three witches that give him a glimpse into the future of him reigning supreme over the land, which he acts upon mostly because of Lady Macbeth’s mischievous and meddling ways.  Macbeth slays Duncan in his sleep and is later crowned king, but soon becomes ravaged by a deep seeded paranoia about his newfound stature and those around him that may wish to take it from him.  His grasp of sanity becomes hopelessly lost when he starts to have doubts about the loyalties of those closest to him in his inner circle, which explodes in a series of horrific confrontations that threaten his future rule. 

I just couldn’t shake how impressively mounted this MACBETH was from a production standpoint as I left the screening of it.  The visceral horrors of the battlefield presented in the film are a pitch perfect match for the internal horrors that persist in Macbeth’s mind as he clings to his throne and mental well being.  The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw stunningly evokes a cruel, violent, and vengeful world for the story’s trouble personas to occupy, which makes bravura usage of the fog coated Scottish highlands and vistas to masterful effect.  The manner with which Kurzel frames and choreographs the action suggests a hypnotically gritty and gory graphic novel from the most depraved recesses of our collective nightmares.  By the time the film reaches a fever pitched climax – set against a backdrop of literal fire and brimstone that suggests hell on earth – MACBETH almost becomes impossible to look away from despite the savagery thrown on screen.   This film is simply a work of brutal visual poetry. 

Kurzel matches the film’s stunning sense of atmosphere with equally virtuoso performances.  Fassbender – as he has demonstrated time and time again in mesmerizing performances in HUNGER, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, SHAME, and this year’s STEVE JOBS – shows that he is unafraid of any thespian challenge thrown at him.  His Macbeth is suitably soulful and introspective, yet eventually displays an animalistic hostility and irreparable level of mistrust; it’s a richly multifaceted portrayal of a man destroying himself from within that only Fassbender could muster.  He’s remarkably well paired with Cotillard, who arguably gives the more unsettling and menacing performance of the pair in terms of how she uses a soft spoken tenor and stillness to suggest a woman that’s wrapped up in a cerebral bubble of her own twisted desires and motivations.  Lesser actresses would have played Lady Macbeth to distracting levels of camera mugging histrionics, but Cotillard is wise in playing Lady Macbeth as a calm figure of evil, which is arguably more chilling. 

Of course, even though this MACBETH is far from being definitively faithful to Shakespeare’s iconic text, Kurzel nevertheless captures many of the great moments from the play with a real level of transfixing allure.  Key monologues are often uttered with a whisper while the characters are placed within incalculably large spaces, whereas others manage to have a near dreamlike atmosphere that lends themselves well to the film’s overall expressionistic take on the material.  Throughout the film Kurzel understands that the key to framing his entire story is by focusing on the frantic horrors of Macbeth’s unsettled nature.  It’s quite amazing to see a film adaptation of Shakespeare that taps into the obvious theatricality of the piece while also having time to tap into the inner mindsets of its characters in instances of quiet introspection.  It’s true that this MACBETH is loose in terms of appropriating the play’s overall story, but Kurzel remains steadfastly faithful to its tone and spirit, which is what every film adaptation of Shakespeare’s work should ultimately aspire to. 

However, having said all of that, MACBETH clocks in at less than two hours, which makes it feel a bit truncated.  It also could be argued that perhaps Kurzel places a considerable amount of emphasis on the huge scale of his enormous battle sequences to the point that it sometimes distracts from the overall drama of the piece.  I for one was so enraptured by the risks and gambles of this inherent adaptation that I simply didn’t care about nitpicking after awhile.  This is a mostly faithful and fiendishly inventive Shakespearean film adaptation, presented with consummately engaging and audacious cinematic flair.  And when Fassbender and Cotillard are on screen together it’s as absolutely spellbinding to behold as the film’s astonishing production artifice.  

This MACBETH will stay with me for an awfully long time.  

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