“I feel now the future in the instant”
For one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth is not one that often appears on film screens but Justin Kurzel’s adaptation set that right in 2015 in blistering style. An utterly cinematic version that on paper should raise many a theatre fan’s hackles, its brooding sense of epic danger releases the film into a new dimension, one which may well irk a purist or three but on its own merits, is most darkly compelling.
Kurzel opts for a medieval Scottish setting, a land somewhere between the mythical and the mundane, using some striking Caledonian vistas for location work. The reality of life is shown by the Macbeths’ castle being little more than a collection of mud huts but sweeping shots of mountains and moorsides from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw pull us away into the ether and the red tinges of crimson flame and scarlet blood paint almost expressionistic frames that are just beautiful to behold.
And if this is a production that is as concerned (if not more so) with visuals than verse, casting Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the central couple elevates the whole affair. From the outset, we see just how traumatised they are – a wordless prologue sees them lighting the funeral pyre for their young son and he is haunted by the comrades he’s lost on the battlefield. And damaged rather than dastardly, there’s something desperately moving about them.
Fassbender quoted PTSD as a key character choice when publicising the film and it is a choice that really works here, the one boy soldier that haunts him the most hints at how hardened he’s had to become, how scar tissue has calcified beyond repair. And Cotillard is just stunning as Lady Macbeth, her instinctive intensity lending itself to the earlier nefarious deeds but flourishing into cinematic greatness as the ramifications of their actions come to bear, the sleepwalking scene is astonishing. Praise too should go to Jacqueline Durran’s costumes.
There’s good support too from Paddy Considine’s earnest Banquo, David Thewlis’ Duncan and Sean Harris’ harrowing Macduff. And the modifications to the text, not just slimmed down but repurposed in some cases is always thought-provoking if not necessarily expected – the poor Macduffs…, the witches expand in number effectively, Birnam Wood moves quite differently, there’s musical chairs at the feast and Malcolm gets a crucial eyeful which, combined with the ending, suggests much about the kind of king he’ll be.
Kurzel’s brother Jed provides a rightfully moody soundtrack but over the course of the whole film, one does begin to notice a certain levelness of tone, little sound and fury disrupting the mood. Its particularly evident in the verse-speaking, which veers a little close to mumbling on occasion, as the moodiness that is being evoked always comes at the sacrifice of fluctuating drama – everything comes out at the same register. It’s a very powerful one but one suspects a little variation of tone might help some audiences to connect emotionally. Still, a strikingly successful adaptation of the Scottish play.