Jake Kelleher reviews this gory and glorious adaptation
At the beginning of reviews, many critics feel somewhat obliged to provide a spoiler warning. If that’s the case, I, however, feel obliged to provide you with the link to a more appropriate site to waste your time on, considering it’s, well, Macbeth we’re talking about.
That being said, while the new screen adaptation, directed by relative unknown Justin Kurzel, is largely word-for-word faithful to the play, there is a noticeable fleshing out of the Macbeths’ narrative, principally the core motives that drive their doomed struggle for power and security: unforeseeable tragedy and the loss of control over life.
In fact, in this adaptation we first encounter the star couple burying their infant daughter on the frosted slopes of Scotland. In the original play there is never any explicit mention of the Macbeths having a child, only a remark (line 55-59) that left Shakespeare scholars in a conundrum for centuries. The inclusion of this very scene beautifully illustrates the motive for the Macbeth clan’s pursuit for power. They have already lost their cherished daughter to the ravages of disease, and being at the top of the political food chain is their only means of maintaining stability in this otherwise chaotic world.
Shakespeare was keenly astute when it came to psychology. Most of his more memorable plays usually include well-intentioned yet flawed characters who succumb to madness and tragedy through desperately trying to seek resolution or control of their circumstances. Kurzel did a perfect job of building on this: this brief scene humanises both Macbeths and provides an effective counterpoint to the madness to which they succumb.
We’re then transported to Macbeth and Banquo’s military campaign (originally only explained by a sergeant in the first act). We are treated to a spectacular bloodbath as Macbeth, in bloodstained plaid and worn leather, leads his partly underage and broken rabble of soldiers into battle against an equally demoralised lump of sack-clothed Vikings or whoever . We come to see that Macbeth is a universally respected and admired general, and friend to both Banquo and Duncan (at least from Duncan’s perspective). The fall is all the greater from here on in.
Nearly every single performance is a rich character study. Despite Cotillard’s laughable attempt at a non-French accent, she is an otherwise fantastic actor, and, along with Fassbender, gives a remarkably nuanced performance, Cotillard with wide expressive eyes and Fassbender with his forlorn and weathered features. Both convey madness, grief and utter despair, sometimes all at once. One striking scene was the couple’s plot to murder Duncan (David Thewlis). Their chemistry shone through as they defiled the candlelit chapel through scheming, sex and the washing off of blood in holy water.
Even the cinematography must be applauded. Here, the adaptation is set in the cold and unforgiving wastelands of early medieval Scotland. This ain’t Monarch of the Glen, full of stereotypically quaint and happy Highlanders there to cater to aged, dull and libido-less English tourists. This is the Celtic world’s answer to the Wild West where even death is mundane. Every location shot encapsulates the cold and lonely world which the characters inhabit, and this is further enhanced by the appearance of an unnatural fog and jaundiced filtering whenever the witches make an entrance. It almost adds a darkly comic aspect to the film: why would anyone want to be king of such a land in the first place?
However, the pacing stops dead not too long after Duncan’s own gruesome murder at the halfway point. The rapid shifts of pace within the opening battle scene was a masterstroke of editing and direction, but the film itself both lags and feels rushed. Macbeth succumbs to madness far too quickly. We aren’t given time to see him (mal)adjust to his new position as king. Within a matter of a few minutes, Macbeth transforms from a man still trying to rationalise his actions for murdering Duncan to one who revels in his scheme to murder Banquo and his son.
Fast forward to Macduff’s family being burnt alive, and Malcolm and his goons are travelling north to confront Macbeth by force. This scene is stunning: Macbeth witnesses a forest burning, next to his dilapidated castle, with the roaring of ash and embers clambering over the walls. His world now is literally on fire and the air is suffocated by blood red mist and smoke as he battles Macduff. But as beautifully acted as it was, and complemented with disembowelings, the scene dragged on for another 20 minutes of excruciating existentialist lamentation. I stopped caring. I was waiting for Macbeth to die. This was primarily because the film, despite being supposedly two hours long, felt more like three. It overindulged in eye-candy scenery, dragging down an otherwise fantastic film.
Because of this, I’m on the fence as to whether this film should be recommended. The performances and cinematography alone merit Oscars and no amount of times you sleep inside animal carcasses (who doesn’t these days anyway?) shall conquer that. That being said, the second half of the film is almost a chore to get through which weighs down an otherwise fantastic work of art. Either watch it fully with a pinch of salt or go on YouTube to pick and choose the best scenes to view.
Featured image credit: official Macbeth poster