Justin Kurzel breaks into the mainstream with the stark and stylish Macbeth
From the opening shot of a child’s funeral pyre, it’s clear that Snowtown director Justin Kurzel’s take on the Scottish play is going to be dark. From the gloomy skies and hazy mists to the staggering violence and psychological horror, Macbeth is an intense, difficult film from start to end. In this lean, mean adaptation, Ford On Film favourite Michael Fassbender plays the titular soldier who, after a supremely eerie meeting with the three witches, plots the murder of his King Duncan (David Thewlis, sporting a pitch perfect accent) with his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard).
I wasn’t a fan of Kurzel’s debut Snowtown; I found it unbearably grim and upsetting, too grisly to be truly watchable. Though Macbeth is at times very difficult to watch (the opening battle alone includes stabbings, throat slashings and a beheading), it’s shot and edited beautifully. Taking the 300 approach, Kurzel takes his time portraying the art of war, constantly cutting between fast paced charge and extreme, Zack Synder-esque slow-mo, making each battle look like a painting. The effect is stunning, doing justice to the gorgeous cinematography of Adam Arkapaw. At other times, the film has the feel of New German cinema, Aguirre Wrath of God set in the highlands. The psychedelic nature of the film, with its constant grey skies and, later, blazing forests, call to mind some of the more experimental films of the last few years, like Refn’s Valhalla Rising or Wheatley’s A Field in England. Seeing a mainstream film like Macbeth take on such an out-there streak is really quite thrilling to see.
One problem that every Shakespeare adaptation faces is familiarity. Simply put, there are very few people left on Earth who haven’t read, heard, or seen a version of Macbeth in 2015. While the screenplay has been trimmed, there are certainly dull periods where the film puts across nothing new. After the outstanding first half, featuring the stunning battle, creepy meeting with the witches and bloody death of Duncan, the scenes of Macbeth’s tumble into madness are a disappointment. In Kurosawa’s adaptation Throne of Blood, these scenes were the highlight, mostly due to Toshiro Mifune’s over-the-top theatrics. Here, it doesn’t quite feel deserved, Macbeth going from strong warrior to paranoid and delusional in seemingly a matter of minutes. Kurzel takes his time with the material and while this can work wonders, especially when Fassbender gets to show off his tremendous dramatic ability, it can also lead to a few slow, overly-long scenes.
While Fassbender’s performance is not his greatest and probably wouldn’t make a top five list of his greatest screen credits, he still plays a blinder, both physically convincing as a war leader and vulnerable enough to show Macbeth’s madness. His accent isn’t half bad either. While Cotillard barely even attempts the accent (she’s more generic posh English than anything else), it really doesn’t affect her performance, which is excellent. Her Lady Macbeth is less villainous than previous incarnations; she’s more tragic than manipulative, and an extended take in which she prays to the skies is a highlight of her already impressive career.
In smaller roles, Jack Reynor (whose praises I recently sung in my article about What Richard Did) is wonderfully sympathetic, his baby-faced looks creating a great contrast with Fassbender’s battle-scarred chops, and Sean Harris, usually so terrific as the token psychopath, is hugely emotive as Macduff, who suffers perhaps more than anybody in the cast. Perhaps the only disappointment in a stellar ensemble is Paddy Considine as Banquo. Considine is one of my favourite actors and a true national treasure, but he’s given very little to do here. He still gives a good menacing look (retained from his Dead Man’s Shoes days), but otherwise gets very little screen time, of which he spends most of it struggling to get to grips with the Scottish brogue.
Slow and grim it may be, but there’s enough to keep you engrossed through Macbeth’s two hour running time. Perhaps the most visually stylish film of the year, the film has outstanding cinematography and editing, with Kurzel making a major mainstream breakthrough as a talent to watch. Fassbender and Cotillard are excellent leads in a great ensemble, and though many will be put off by the stark tone and brutal violence, this is a Macbeth that can proudly stand up as one of the better big screen Shakespeare adaptations.
By Harry Ford