It’s difficult to get recognition for certain genre films in the awards circuit. Until only recently the idea of nominating a fantasy or science-fiction film for Best Picture would have seemed out of the question. However, thanks to the paradigm shift initiated by The Matrix, emboldened by Peter Jackson’s perfect (and I mean perfect) Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the likes of other hits such as The Dark Knight, District 9 and the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, we have entered into a time where even the most outlandish tale, if well told, can aspire to Oscar Gold. The same cannot be said for Shakespearean adaptations, which is a shame considering Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is one of the finest films I have seen in recent memory.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth follows the titular Scottish general who, along with his wife, plots to murder his king and assume his position. After the deed is done, Macbeth’s life begins to unravel as the consequences of the king’s assassination become apparent and more dire actions are required of Macbeth to retain his precarious position. Madness has always been a potent theme of the play and here it is even more apparent. The strength of film as a medium is the totality of its illusion and director Justin Kurzel uses every tool available to him to make his adaptation of the stage play as cinematic as possible. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Snowtown Murders) is beautiful and unsettling. Through his lens the Scottish highlands are a bleak, purgatorial wasteland, devoid of color and comfort; likewise Macbeth’s castle is shot in such a way that he always stands at odds with his surroundings, a brute amidst finery, clearly an impostor in another man’s house. The battle scenes, only alluded to in the play, are shown here in full, brutal yet stylistic, often depicted in ultra-slow-motion that makes them look like the grim renderings of some Renaissance painter. The score only adds to the nightmarish, fever-dream that is this film; composed by the director’s brother, Jed Kurzel, nearly every moment is filled with discomfort, a niggling dread that’s drawn out during the film’s monologues, then strengthened with discordant swells and shrieks into the atonal, pounding battle music of the film’s finale.
No matter how wonderfully crafted a film is, the majority of its success rests with its actors and thankfully the performances in Macbeth are universally excellent. Michael Fassbender makes for an incredible Macbeth. Casting his version of the character as a soldier suffering from acute PTSD and delusions of grandeur, Fassbender effortlessly navigates the manic, shifting nature of Macbeth in a way that reveals his bone-deep doubt and weakness. The main folly of Macbeth is his suggestible nature; though an able warrior, he is not one for far-thinking or deep-cunning. Lady Macbeth, however, is. The architect of Macbeth’s ascension, as well as a voice of questionable counsel, Lady Macbeth needs to be both clever and strong, a woman withheld from power by no more than the unfair and gendered restrictions of the time. Marion Cotillard captures the (seemingly) indomitable will of Lady Macbeth, showing a woman who will stop at nothing to take what she believes is hers. Together, Fassbender and Cotillard shine, their chemistry palpable, the complex power-play of their characters’ relationship revealed with every whispered line and cutting glance.
Bolstered by its great performances, Macbeth shines most in the subtle additions and alterations made by Kurzel and his writing partners. Though they alter not a word of the Bard’s language, the context of events take a different shape under their guidance, imbuing many moments and character turns with more power and depth. I will not spoil the full extent of Kurzel and company’s innovative choices, but I will say that they cast a well-worn play in an entirely new light.
These tweaks, along with the powerhouse performances of both Fassbender and Cotillard, the sublimely nightmarish quality of the cinematography, and the unsettling score make for a quintessential Shakespeare experience and the best time you’re likely to have outside of an actual theatre.
All hail Macbeth, indeed.