DIRECTOR JUSTIN KURZEL’S “Macbeth” is absolutely riveting. He’s taken Shakespeare’s tale of tyranny, ambition and deceit, stripped it of huge chunks of text and a few characters (so that a three hour play is intelligently edited down to under two hours) and the result is an enormously watchable, stunningly powerful drama. No doubt influenced by Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”, Kurzel’s “Macbeth” plays out through a series of stark, almost surreal images where the ‘blasted heath’ – dark, cold, inhospitable (“darkness does the face of earth entomb”) – becomes the visual equivalent of a kingdom forged in regicide and drowning in blood and madness.
Michael Fassbender is a towering, ruthless action-man Macbeth. Just as you’d expect from someone who’d “unseam” his enemy “from the nave to th’ chaps, /And fix his head upon…battlements”. But for all his brutish virility (he makes love to his wife as they plot the death of Duncan), he lacks an heir (in a nice touch, Kurzel begins the story with Macbeth and wife at the funeral of their child) and yields to his wife’s taunts to either be a real man or “live a coward in thine own esteem”.
It is a route to manliness by way of insanity
Fassbender’s Macbeth is perfectly matched by Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. Her cunning steely determination is nicely counterpointed by her sexiness, which she uses to good effect on Macbeth. Cotillard manages to convey at all times the balance between the ‘mere’ wife of the Thane of Cawdor and someone who is filled “from the crown to the toe, top- full/ Of direst cruelty”
They are a perfect partnership; hot for each other (the chemistry between Fassbender and Cotillard is obvious) and engaged not so much in a marriage as a collusion. It becomes all the more shocking as we see her unflinching strength yield to insanity. In the end, her prayer to “make thick my blood” cannot stand up to the guilt of what she has unleashed into the world. We meet her as she nears her end alone in a convent this time haunted by blood… and watched over by a dead child. “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” she asks to no one in particular.
They’re the last words we’ll hear her speak
Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays that have been turned into movies retain their theatrical form… simply transported to better locations. So, they all feel slightly stilted; usually the shift from stage to screen doesn’t work. But this “Macbeth” feels like a movie… as though Shakespeare had written it for the screen.
And it’s a movie about war. This is a world at war. The stylized battle scenes are loud, vicious and gory. When the armies clash, Kurtzel places us in the middle of what it must have been like to have ten thousand screaming war painted men rushing at you with swords and axes at the ready. The war is so intense, the battles so exhaustingly murderous, you wonder how anyone lived through them. And this is Kuttzel’s point. His interpretation of the play is a very modernist one: the Macbeth we meet…imagining the ghost of Banquo, spooked by witches, and increasingly indifferent to his degenerating wife is a warrior suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. It’s a condition of war that (we can hypothesize) the ever-observant poet must have been well aware of.
The movie ends as it begins – with a pitched battle. And between these two frenzied bouts of violence and carnage, a sense of darkness and dread and loneliness permeate the entire tale. There is no question that this is a world that’s out of joint.
Historians have suggested that this was Shakespeare zoning in on the zeitgeist of the day. For when wrote it, his universe must indeed have felt out of joint. Macbeth was written in 1606, just a year after the Ascension to the throne of James I, or James VI of Scotland (a man who believed in witches). It was the same year that Guido Fawkes, and English Catholic mercenary tried to assassinate him. The shift from an English Elizabethan England to a Scottish Jacobean reign must have been enormously unsettling… and has been clearly mirrored through Shakespeare’s unerring lens both in this play and the one that preceded it, “King Lear”
Not unlike the Kurosawa version, Kurzel’s visual imagination (well assisted by production designer Fiona Crowmby, and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw) allows you to remember – and see – the play through a series of stunning vignettes, that speak almost as loud as Shakespeare’s language: As Macbeth hacks and chops at Macduff (Sean Harris) in the final battle, the witches hover silently in the fog…witnesses to his defeat; in death he kneels over as Malcolm’s triumphant army marches past as if he were not even there. He’s already become a footnote. We follow Lady Macduff as she and her children are chased through a forest, she screaming “Murder, murder”…it’s like hunters after wild game; the murder of Duncan is no simple killing – we see Macbeth as the butcher – stabbing and stabbing his King; and all around there is fog and the wet cold, untamed rigour of the land