Modernising Shakespeare is sometimes left to style over substance. ‘Relocation’ as the operative word; throw Jacobean lovers into a high school, or a hunched villain into SS gear, and you have a talking point that will strain for attention through even the toughest production issues. The trick, actually, is to make full use of filmic language, to push the boundaries of what cinema can do for Shakespeare and let these mad, archetypal characters prove themselves in the pot of tricks that a good director dreams up, while staying true to texts that may never be bettered. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is awash in blood, mist, and thoroughly modern scenes of carnage, and it succeeds because it is honest to the truth of war and the truth of being a proper film. This is the play stripped to its sharpest essentials, simply told yet unafraid to paint gorgeously a sense of space and silence that roils beneath those famous words like witch’s breath on the air.
The direction is flashy and arresting. An opening contest is staged like videogame art, knives poised over young throats as three women share a slo-mo moment with Scotland’s tyrant-to-be. Mud and spittle spray on the grass, over bodies and weapons. Michael Fassbender, as Macbeth, has the shattered gaze of a man suffering from PTSD, slouched and heavy with the weight of duty to his sovereign. He’s a broken soul before he’s infected by the witches’ prophecy, which makes his journey to hell irrevocable, less senseless than a warmer interpretation might have suggested. Marion Cottilard’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth is likewise drenched in the ice of traumatic experience from the get-go. Some of the subtext behind the Macbeths’ marriage is addressed: they had a child, she died, and it ruined them. Life’s cruelty haunts the couple at every turn, and it’s no surprise they dish it out similarly when they’re nudged towards uglier, taboo-breaking violence.
The spectral presence of this daughter figure stirs the mix in a grandly psychotic vision of Shakespeare’s most thrilling tragedy. Kurzel’s best efforts see the collapsing mind of our anti-hero unfurl publicly to his people; Banquo’s (Paddy Considine) visit to the Macbeth’s feast table is unnerving because he makes a point in a packed room, a single man standing for many, one of hundreds of old allies destined for the grave as the milk of human kindness runs dry. Soldiers are as unrelatable to one another as the dead are to the living. When his Lady is dead, Fassbender lifts her body and walks with her as he laments the lure of eternal meaning. Everyone here is struggling for connection, to move beyond the primal drum at the centre of their existence. When it works best, it’s like a horror film on the heath, or a liberal, clued-up Braveheart.
Perhaps more shrift should have been given to those surrounding Fassbender, although asking an actor of such effortless ability to carry the film is understandable and even necessary for the ground it covers. It’s a shame that we don’t get under the skin of Banquo, Macduff, or even Lady Macbeth, one of the most formidable women in literature, who is side-lined by Kurzel’s fascination with male fatigue, though she’s delivered memorably enough through Cottilard’s spiky English accent. The two leads have chemistry, and they convince on the matter of having frequent and attentive sex.
As for the interludes between soliloquies, they’re handsome, oppressive and brutal when they want to be, shaping a very bleak movie, showing horrible things and their consequence and the society that enables them. Macbeth, ultimately, emerges as a spoke on the wheel of war, and you have to wonder why he bothers murdering a king at all when his capacity to feel is so damaged from the beginning. If it isn’t quite brilliant, Kurzel’s take is at least self-assured, and ready to prove we can never recover from the wounds that are precious to us.
Macbeth is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
For more information, visit www.macbeth-movie.com.
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