Film Review | Macbeth
From Orson Welles in 1948 to Roman Polanski in 1971, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has undergone many stage and screen adaptations in its 400 year plus history. The latest attempt to translate it to the silver screen comes from Justin Kurzel. It’s only the second feature from the Australian director, but he accomplishes an impressive feat in distinguishing his take from all that has come before it. It’s just unfortunate that much of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is undecipherable.
A near-wordless bloodthirsty battle in the film’s opening minutes sets the tone for what’s to come. One of its participants is Macbeth (Michael Fassbender); after receiving a prophecy from three witches that he will one day rule Scotland, the brooding soldier – after some manipulative encouragement from his wife (Marion Cotillard) – takes matters into his own hands and slaughters King Duncan (David Thewlis). Now King, the guilt of Macbeth’s actions threatens to overwhelm him, and a descent into madness and paranoia ensues.
From the outset, Kurzel makes plenty of interesting and bold directorial decisions. The fog-hued actions set-pieces are spectacular, making emphatic use of slow motion and featuring a powerful, lingering, and at times overbearing score by Kurzel’s brother, Jed.
It makes it all the more disappointing that the narrative as refashioned by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie, fails to immerse. Indeed, a refresher on the play beforehand is recommended; with all the cast – save Cotillard – speaking in monotonous and thick Scottish accents, it’s hard to understand what’s being said, particularly problematic when your film is heavy on Shakespearean dialogue. Newcomers may find it hard to follow.
It’s frustrating, as Fassbender puts in yet another excellent turn as the titular Thane turned King. He’s made a career out of playing dark characters who want to be good, and while his scenes as the mad king are performed with the required potency it’s the earlier scenes where he is trying to suppress the underlying madness that are perhaps even more impressive. Matching him soliloquy for soliloquy is Cotillard, who brings depth and determination to Lady Macbeth. The performances are so good that at times it’s almost possible to follow the story through actors’ pained expressions, but this shouldn’t be a necessity.
Visually striking without being compelling, Kurzel’s Macbeth deserves kudos for being a distinctive retelling, even if the aesthetics and atmosphere overshadow story and dialogue.