Like many others I’m sure, I was required to read and study William Shakespeare’s Macbeth multiple times at school from quite a young age. As a result it’s admittedly tough for me to drum up much excitement for any new film adaptation of it, particularly one that isn’t obviously attempting anything new with the material even if I can appreciate the quality of the play is and said adaptation is starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
The main concern when seeing a film of a famous play tends to be whether or not it’s just going to feel like filmed theatre or not. Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) puts any such worries immediately to rest in the opening sequence; a stunning staging of Macbeth’s battle against the treacherous Macdonald that is only talked about in the play. Kurzel alternates between extreme slow motion and brutal, quick sword clashes. He introduces an appropriately high level of violence that remains throughout the film, another pleasing aspect for those who, like me have little desire to see sanitised Shakespeare works.
Kurzel also establishes a firm look and mood to the film, employing a colour scheme both bleak yet characterised by vivid reds that tinge the skies of Scotland. The film is frankly incredible to look at, Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography, along with the haunting score by Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother) combine to create an uneasy atmosphere. These factors alone aid this Macbeth adaptation to stand out and easily justify its existence.
Gorgeous images are not enough to maintain a film by themselves though, and while nobody is going to question the source material’s worth, some alterations are still required to bring it to the screen. Some of these work very well to the film’s advantage – it downplays the supernatural elements considerably, having the witches look decidedly un-stereotypical and possibly be products of Macbeth’s mind. Similarly some of the soliloquys from him and Lady Macbeth are accompanied by visions of some sort, so they are often not apparently talking to themselves. This choice helps make it all a little less stagey but there are still some inconsistent moments; Macbeth begins his first one in voice over before switching to speaking on-screen, and I wondered how effective it could have been if all such dialogue had been performed as voice-over.
Another significant alteration can be found in the treatment and fate of Macduff’s children, possibly the play’s most infamous scene (I remember my English teacher despising it). It plays out entirely differently here, removing any of the potentially embarrassing lines and replacing them with some of the film’s most disturbing imagery. It’s startling and effective.
The screenplay, somewhat surprisingly credited to three different writers (Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso) takes the approach of assuming viewers are familiar with the play. It maintains the Shakespearean dialogue yet often has the actors deliver it in mumbling or whispered tones. I can imagine someone totally unfamiliar with the play finding it hard to decipher.
The film also cuts Macbeth down to a manageable length of 113 minutes, and this is where is stumbles somewhat. After the incredible opening act has cemented the mood and style of the film, it begins to fall into familiarity, moving from each of Macbeth’s most famous moments to the next.
The weakest aspect of this is how it dilutes the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In this version, it never feels like they undergo a slow descent into madness as a result of their decisions. Macbeth just appears to be quite mad from the start rather than experiencing a gradual decline. Lady Macbeth on the other hand comes across as having a more sudden change of mind between scenes. Her more famous speech is incidentally filmed quite differently from the others with a long, unbroken close-up. Cotillard delivers it well, but overall she feels like more of a supporting character than the co-lead she originally was.
The cast, led by a by-now expectedly excellent Fassbender is very strong in general, including Paddy Considine conveying Banquo’s changing opinions of Macbeth very effectively in his relatively few appearances, and Sean Harris giving a great interpretation of Macduff (not to mention being almost unrecognisable from his other notable movie role this year in Mission: Impossible 5).
Strangely, Kurzel’s Macbeth is at its best when deviating from or adapting the source material to its own end, giving us a different takes on certain known scenes, or altering them for greater cinematic effect. The characters don’t always feel like they’re fully formed however, and when it reverts to the bits everyone knows, it risks feeling like just another Shakespeare adaptation destined to be screened for uninterested schoolchildren for the next few decades.