Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (UK); December 4th, 2015 (US)
Genre: Drama; War
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard
Justin Kurzel’s ferocious take on Macbeth begins and ends with death. Though its Shakespearean format might isolate those who aren’t well-versed in the Bard’s prose, the film attains a degree of accessibility by dealing in brute force and thematic clarity. We see a Star Wars-esque information trail at the start, but this time the text is in blood red. Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, concocts a score that drills and hammers in tandem with bellowing battle cries, bestowing total discomfort upon us. Writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie opt to examine how the loss of innocence can incite the immoral side of power, and the results are unflinching.
Upon discovering he is destined to be king, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) weighs up the immediacy of his sure-fire thronage. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) urges her husband to commit treasonous murder, to speed up the process by killing King Duncan (David Thewlis). Convinced, and perhaps driven by grief brought about by the death of his own child, the Thane of Scotland slays his superior. From then we see the man crumble, haunted by visions of dead clansmen he swore to protect in battle. He becomes a mad king increasingly propelled by unfettered impulsion and corrupted by power (“Full of scorpions, is my mind”).
Kurzel’s film will likely appeal to a specific audience; attempts to widen its potential reach are few and far between. Ye who enter devoid of prior knowledge, like myself, will have to contend with a movie that communicates entirely through the diction of Shakespeare. As such, it functions much in the same way a foreign language piece without subtitles would, which might alienate some viewers. It shouldn’t though. Blindly following the story is never too difficult as the actors offer a tangible, precise translation. It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Cotillard in particular that the narrative is sold to us without a verbal parachute.
With Fassbender, it’s all in the eyes. His Macbeth, a brooding warrior at the fore, grows bags that darken beneath increasingly absent pupils as the pressure of sovereignty takes over. We never really know where we stand with him — his irreverent actions eventually hit a point of no return, but until then there’s a sorrowful tragedy surrounding Macbeth. In a case of role-reversal, it is Lady Macbeth who must take on the burden of regret. Cotillard is more subtle than her male counterpart. Her words, though often beautiful, are enshrouded in hysteria and pain; the camera unblinkingly lingers on her face during a scene towards the end as the actor speaks with utter command, evoking genuine heartbreak.
The framework from which the duo perform is comparable to how Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones navigated The Theory of Everything: one exercises true physicality while the other evokes a delicate-yet-purposeful poise. There is often a lingering stillness that is only interrupted by Fassbender’s increasingly perturbed movement, and only Cotillard has the guile to reign in said eccentricity. Friend-turned-foe Macduff, played by an emotionally-wrought Sean Harris, christens Macbeth the “Fiend of Scotland”.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising might have been a touchpoint for Kurzel, especially in a visual sense: the unquenchable mist, the moorish setting, the breadth of visceral savagery, all invoked. Battle scenes could very well be taking place among the Dead Marshes on the boggy road to Mordor. The Scottish setting, not unlike modern times, is always cloudy, or rainy, or dank, but the aesthetic is never mundane — fog is crimson coloured and dynamic. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw mixes steady shots with a shaky cam effect, mirroring the vacillating levels of order and chaos afoot.
Arkapaw shot the soon-to-be iconic six-minute drug den raid in True Detective season one, and Macbeth revels in similar technical prowess. From sound, to look, to how the film is edited, it’s quite stunning. Scenes showing brutal murder, such as the death of King Duncan, are intercut with instances of solemn hush. A contrast is evident throughout, pitting light against dark (or perhaps it is dark against post-dark). The sound design is worth mentioning too: rallying howls echo with spine-tingling reverence around cavernous cathedral-like rooms.
To the credit of those on and off-screen, it never feels like we’re watching a play. In many ways this is a niche offering; much of the verbiage might not make sense, yet you can’t help but stare. And when what you’re staring at is this good, this impactful, words are almost inconsequential. Here are two more anyway: Hail Macbeth!
Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company