With its meticulous framing, bold editing and sparsely sumptuous cinematography, Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of the most straightforward of Shakespeare’s plays has as its closest cinema-analogue, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. Indeed, Macbeth is bold in its visuals, opaque in its emotional spaces, brutal in its violence, and the chilly Isle of Skye locations evoke medieval eras where the halls of men were dwarfed by endless open spaces. It was, quite frankly, surprising just how much it made HBO’s Game of Thrones, which films in Ireland, a quick hop south and west, look small and visually unambitious. In the golden age of television, the convergence of directors, actors, and production design between TV and Feature Films, there is clearly a domain of one: complex plots and characters, novelistic storytelling, and the other: pure, overwhelming audiovisual power.
You perhaps know the story well. A noble warrior in Scotland is convinced by his wife to murder his king to speed up succession. The guilt drives him mad, and more murders are called for to sustain power, before the consequences are fully reaped. And there are witches who coin the term ‘hurly-burly’ to describe the whole sordid affair. One thing that is either in the Bard’s text, and I have somehow missed it in the past, or it is freshly integrated by Kurzel and his screenwriters (one of latter is High Fidelity actor, Love Liza director Todd Louiso), is that of coldhearted ambitions being driven by the loss of children, or the lack-there-of. The film opens with the death of one the Macbeth’s children, a baby girl, to an unexplained illness, and quickly follows up with the loss of the other child to war. It is never made unequivocal that either of these are in fact the offspring of the pair, but the framing of the opening funeral in one scene, and later, the way MacBeth applies war paint to the boy-soldier, firm but delicate, laced with unspoken pride, seems to imply such. The boy’s death recalls the silent horrors of Russian masterpiece Come And See. Is Macbeth’s hunger for power and nation building driven by the loss of his own? A corrupt lust or desire for stronger leadership to prevent further civil wars? Either way, it underscores the tragedies to follow. On a somewhat unrelated note, there is also the addition of a small girl to the trio of Witches making them either a fearsome-foursome or a family. Combine that with a children’s choir performance piece in the middle the film, and one can see the emphasis of ‘the future’ in this telling of the play.
Michael Fassbender brings the type of raw, implacable energy that he does for director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), and is equally handy with a soliloquy or a sword. Sometimes he does both simultaneously. His slow loss of sanity in the back half gloriously subverts his charming smile, making it a mockery of the actors effortless charisma. Marion Cotillard’s Lady MacBeth is played, at times, more tragic than Machiavellian, at times her lonely stares into the camera threaten to conjure Maria Falconetti. It makes the character either complex or poorly written and realized, I couldn’t tell. The iambic pentameter and original text of the play are intact and when on screen instead of on stage, tend to mute the emotional components of the characters, which is handily made up for by the sheer visual portentousness (and yes, occasional glorious splendour too!) Want to get an idea as to how the final battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker should have been shot? Look no further than the ‘forest is on fire and ash is in the air’ battle of broadswords between MacBeth and MacDuff late into this film. It is epic, intimate, and unholy in its cinematic brawn.
It is the supporting cast however, that elevate Macbeth in terms of emotional engagement. David Thewlis as the trusting, no-nonsense King Duncan; clad in leather and cloth over velvet and gold. Paddy Considine brings pathos and modesty to Banquo, a father is betrayed by his Thane in the worst possible, his only crime being loyalty to the crown and his son. And then there is Sean Harris, he who plays the craziest, deadliest type of villains, from the Harry Brown and A Lonely Place To Die to Mission Impossible 5, playing strongly against type as the noble MacDuff who loses his family to MacBeth’s ever increasing paranoia (shades of Lord Stannis/Sir Davos thread in the most recent chapter in Westeros.)
In short, while I was not emotionally caught up in this 2015 incarnation of Macbeth, I was nevertheless deeply engaged in sheer visual power of the thing that Shakespeare himself called, ‘this bloody business.’