Shakespeare’s acclaimed tragedy sees another big screen adaptation, this time cladding Michael Fassbender in the title role, with Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard in the role of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth sees the rise and fall of a brave but brutal warrior. After being told by a group of witches that he will become King, Macbeth considers and is eventually persuaded by his wife to kill King Duncan (David Thewlis) and so usurps the throne for himself. Macbeth soon finds he must continue to kill those around him to protect his position, and he sinks further into moral and psychological abyss. Meanwhile, an army led by Duncan’s son Malcolm (Jack Reynor), gathers in an effort to reclaim the throne.”
Director Justin Kurzel’s version of The Scottish Play opens on the funeral of a young boy, who is revealed to be Macbeth’s deceased son. With this, the desire of the director to make Shakespeare’s tragedy his own is immediately apparent, for while it is hinted that the Macbeths may have lost a child in the original play, it is never made explicit. Macbeth’s ‘ruthless ambition’ is also made evident from the very first battle scene, a stunning piece which uses slo-mo and does not shirk from the dirtiness and savagery of war. It is almost a shame that Kurzel did not include more of these scenes, though one cannot really fault his concern being focused on character drama and turmoil rather than on action. The tone of the play is captured effectively. While the period and setting of the film are faithful to the original, screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso are also not afraid to make their own changes where it fits the new adaptation. One particularly creative staging comes in the scene where Macbeth delivers his well-known ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech.
Fassbender plays Macbeth as an adrenaline-fuelled warrior and a deeply sad man, and the mental disintegration of his character is also captured well. Indeed, there is no shying away from the emotion of the events of this narrative, and it is refreshing to see a film where men not only fight but also cry, evoking both the physical and emotional drives of humanity that the original play explored. Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous female characters and her contradictory nature of characteristic strength yet fragility, harsh detachment but longing for emotional connection, is beautifully realised in Cotillard’s performance. It is also noteworthy that the opening somewhat changes the character of Lady Macbeth and helps to explain Macbeth’s motives. Lady Macbeth’s cruelty is softened as she is painted as a grieving mother with nothing else to live for. Losing a child has darkened her soul while Macbeth, as a father, has lost his descendant and legacy. The supporting cast are all solid, and each is given a fair amount of screen time in their respective part (although one has the sense that Reynor is a little out of his comfort zone), with a particular standout and emotive performance from Sean Harris as Macbeth’s nemesis Macduff.
Kurzel creates a dark, brooding and penetrative environment in Macbeth. You can almost feel the dampness in certain scenes. The highland plains and mountains form a beautiful, surreal backdrop with the grey and brown tones that dominate the film being stylised through the delivery of bold blasts of red, orange and yellow. Yet, the director’s attention to detail in the visuals of his film arguably becomes something of a weak point as Macbeth progresses. Though the acting is strong, characters become dwarfed by the landscape while the story is also somewhat stunted by the overuse of establishing shots, slo mo, and stylisations in the cinematography. Macbeth is a towering figure, but the landscape may tower over him a little too much.