Bringing a fearsome pace and inescapable style to Shakespeare’s tragedy of murderous ambition, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a luscious, bloody triumph.
Savage Graceby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the success of his broodingly ferocious debut film Snowtown, Justin Kurzel is back with a vengeance – with a bigger budget, and the hottest cast in La-La-Land, including Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and nominee Michael Fassbender. And like all good Shakespeare plays – propping up school curricula all over the globe – Macbeth was in need of an update, over thirty years after Roman Polanski’s version and Orson Welles’ adaptation twenty years before that. And beautifully stylised and pared back to its bare essentials, it’s perfect for Cliff Notes readers the world over. Only this production isn’t just for student audiences, delivering the heart and soul of Macbeth on a crimson’d plate.
Thane of Glamis Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Marion Cotillard) are burying their child when they’re approached by three witches. Macbeth meets them again with Banquo (Paddy Considine) on his way to war, where they augur foul things will be fair for Macbeth, that he shall become Thane of Cawdor and then King, while Banquo shall beget kings but be none. Macbeth is a leading light in King Duncan’s (David Thewlis) war, and after proving himself on the battlefield is awarded the title of Thane of Cawdor, with the honour that King Duncan will become his guest. But when Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth of the wyrd sisters’ prophecy, she needles her husband’s ambition, provoking Macbeth to kill Duncan in his bed. Duncan’s son Malcolm (Jack Reynor) flees, leaving Macbeth to take the crown and the king’s castle before facing his demons, Macduff (Sean Harris) and Birnam wood rising against Dunsinane.
Filmed in the highlands of Scotland, there’s not a hint of creaking boards or shaky theatricals in this Macbeth. Instead, it’s all peaty bogs, heather-covered fells and castles perched on cliffs. Macbeth doesn’t even have stone walls to his name until he becomes King, his Glamis estate instead a collection of wooden steeds. And while it’s strange for there to be no dark corridors for Macbeth to follow his dagger along, or wooden doors for Duncan’s guards to fall asleep by, the meagreness works, sharpening the point of Macbeth’s ambition, which ultimately sees him sitting askew his throne in his regal chamber. It’s a historical style that reinvisages Lady Macbeth too, her cloth shawl draped over her head like a medieval chador and a blue eyeshadow that evokes the Bride of Frankenstein. A style that seeps its way into every corner of Kurzel’s Macbeth – from the slow-mo killings on the battlefield and the dank mists that hang over it to the speeded-up frenzy of bloodletting, masterfully controlled and seductively alluring.
Unlike Shakespeare’s original and most adaptations thereof, Kurzel’s Macbeth isn’t really about the “words, words, words”, but in deliberating over the dead child Lady Macbeth had given suck to, or filming the battle sequences that normally take place off stage, Kurzel gives space to a new Macbeth – less in the antechambers of power and more on the glorious stages where power is won. Perhaps why that’s why Fassbender’s Macbeth comes so quickly unravelled. And while Kurzel cuts whole swathes of Shakespeare’s text, reducing Macbeth to a most potent marrow, it leaves Marion Cotillard hamstrung with Lady Macbeth, not able to put much machiavellian flesh on her bones – already diminished by her inescapably gallic accent to a breathy, restrained version of Shakespeare’s Scottish queen.
But there are lots of clever reimaginings of what has, in the four centuries since it was written, become a somewhat hackneyed choreography, with Birnam Wood now rising to Dunsinane in the form of ash. Or the dagger carried by a young soldier. Or Malcolm witnessing Macbeth’s crime in the open. Or Fleance disappearing into the supernatural mist with the youngest witch. Overstylised, perhaps. But certainly clever and deliciously simple, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth may not do justice to the complexities of Shakespeare’s drama – focusing single-mindedly on Macbeth’s bloody ambition. But with its ineluctable pacing and its hypnotic mixture of performance and style, it’s a dazzling, smouldering Macbeth for the 21st century.
Macbeth is released on 2nd October 2015 in the UK