Film Review: Macbeth

A raw, muddy and appropriately blood-spattered take on the Scottish Play that sees a muted Michael Fassbender upstaged by Marion Cotillard’s grief-stricken Lady Macbeth.
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Soaked in foggy Highland gloom, Justin Kurzel’s beautifully dour Macbeth is moody and violent to a fault. Nobody cracks a smile and there’s nary a drop of blood spilled that isn’t captured in slow-motion flight like an outtake from some Ridley Scott medieval sword-fest. That’s all on the page, of course. Nobody would say that the Scottish Play had to be done as comedy. But there’s a reason that some adaptations embed a bitter strain of farce amidst all the plotting, haunting, murder and madness. After all, its protagonists spend a good part of the play completely out of their heads and throwing an entire nation into civil war because of what some witches told them. While their delusions have real-life consequences, to take them entirely seriously is to risk missing at least part of the point.

Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a war-hardened Scottish lord who starts the film having just buried his daughter before going into battle to defend against foreign invaders. After he and his fellow lord Banquo (Paddy Considine) slash the opposing army to ribbons, they come across a trio of black-clad women. The “weird sisters” murmur prophecies to the confused men. They tell Banquo he will sire kings and Macbeth that he will be made Thane of Cawdor. After the current Thane is executed for treason and Macbeth’s prophecy comes true, he wonders: Why stop at Thane when the King, Duncan (David Thewlis), is right there for the murdering?

At least, that’s what it appears he’s thinking. This Macbeth is a quiet one, Fassbender playing him as one great furrowed brow, thickened with mournful disconnection. For a Shakespearean protagonist, a word-drunk lot at the best of times, there are long stretches where this Macbeth seems practically a mute. It’s rarely difficult for Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) to commandeer the story as she starts planting murderous seeds in Macbeth’s head, but in this version it’s no contest. Part of this is simply due to Cotillard being lighter on her feet, the agony of their daughter’s loss pushing her to action as it smothers him in gloom. When she snarls to the vacillating Macbeth to “screw your courage to the sticking-place” and go ahead with killing Duncan, it’s as though the previously sputtering film’s gears have finally caught. Whatever spell Cotillard is casting here, the film doesn’t have nearly enough of it.

It’s been a common dramatic decision to turn Lady Macbeth into a kind of power-drunk femme fatale; Kurzel’s film tries to locate her ambition in her mourning for a child who Shakespeare never definitively included. The play only says that Lady Macbeth had a child once (“I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me”). But for this adaptation by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, it’s their child’s very recent death that drives both Macbeths to seize power and murder everyone whom they think stands in their way. Heavily underlining the point, Kurzel has the dead, mute daughter stand with the three witches—usually one of the piece’s highlights, but given unforgivably short shrift here—and stare hauntingly at her frequently muted father.

It’s only later on, once Macbeth has seized the throne and realized that his bloody usurpation means no rest, only more and more killing, that Fassbender starts fully embracing Macbeth’s self-inflicted trap. The light of madness enters his eyes even as Cotillard’s dim and the weight of their burden starts dragging the two of them down. The transition comes almost too late to save this intermittently paced but hauntingly shot film, which suffers from a screenplay that slashed off much of the original text and a director who scoured what was left free of Shakespeare’s dark humor. But not quite.

Kurzel’s debut, The Snowtown Murders, took a similarly roundabout and elegantly framed way to its seemingly tabloid-ready story. By turning away from Macbeth’s nature as a deluded villain who gets in over his head because of a plotting wife and some witches rhyming on the blasted heath, Macbeth deprives itself of some of the story’s rougher enjoyments; no bubbling cauldrons or cackling deviousness. But the end result, in which blind ambition is revealed as nothing more than an endless journey to the slaughterhouse, is maybe more resonant in the end.

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