Justin Kurzel’s reworking of Macbeth has been lauded over the last year. The film has been heralded as a masterpiece, with Michael Fassbender in the role ‘he was meant to play’. Here’s the good news: they’re all right. Macbeth is incredible.
The first thing you notice, from the very moment the film begins, is the cinematography – Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw has immediately placed himself among the greats with this film alone. The shots have beautiful palettes; foggy, feral blues broken by solitary figures and craggy mountains, scorched, earthy, symbolic reds – it’s a masterclass in imagery. There’s gorgeous, sulpheric yellows used for the witches. Light is played with wonderfully, falling across people’s faces as a delightful metaphor; this is a film of shadows, of fog, of men half-seen. Macbeth is obscured by fire and smoke, as brutal as the world he exists within.
The shots are gorgeous, with gloriously cinematic slow-motion shots of battle interspersed with almost guerrilla style, unrefined focuses on faces, swords, crucifixes. He strikes a wonderful balance, creating a polished piece of work whilst still retaining the wildness of the Scottish highlands, the brutality of the weather and the volatility of the situation – anything cleaner would have taken away from the tone of the film.
The music throughout is also tonally perfect; throaty, grating strings score battles, murders. It’s as feral as the rest of the movie is, as unembellished. It never intrudes upon a scene – it builds tension, yes, but never outshines a moment, never allows itself to become the focus. The story is everything, and every note played serves only to draw upon this. The final crescendo, scoring the fiery, red death of Macbeth, is stunning – perhaps the finest death music since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. One of the most powerful, foreboding moments in recent cinema comes when a young children’s choir sing to King Duncan – for a moment, it’s quiet except for their voices, and as the camera cuts from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to the tragic King, it says more about what is to come than any line of dialogue ever could.
King Duncan (David Thewlis) is equal parts regal and raw – everything in this film, no matter what, is tinged with a brutality, given to it by war, death, and the Scottish wilderness. Everything has a glint in it’s eye, an almost palpable tether so very nearly reached, and it’s glorious to behold. Duncan is no exception. In Thewlis’ time onscreen, he manages to bring wonderful gravitas to the ill-fated king; his voice is a soft, low animal growl, never needing to go any louder to make himself heard. His quiet assurance is the antithesis of Macbeth’s manic guilt.
As Macbeth himself, Michael Fassbender is electric. Wonderfully unnerving, he manages to place the Thane somewhere between maniacal and weary; sometimes his eyes are hooded, as though he can barely keep them open, and other times they are so alive, burning with ferocity. It’s a fine line to walk without coming across as inconstant, and in less capable hands this Macbeth might have fallen as either boring or impenetrably insane – Fassbender does neither. His madness is his torment, he’s plagued by demons, and this drives him further and further into tyranny. Every moment he is onscreen is triumphant. In fact, he’s only superceded by one person.
Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth is a revelation. She begins power-hungry, almost Wicked Queen-like in her nature, and Cotillard holds this with a stony composure. It’s as the film moves further, though, that she begins to shine. Rather than play on the madness of Lady Macbeth as the play does, Kurzel’s Lady is tortured by the actions of her husband, wracked with guilt. Following their child’s death, her grief is twisted, embittered, but it is only after her husband falls victim to paranoia that this stops driving her ruthless ambition and she falls apart. Cotillard does this effortlessly, moving from sinister to gut-wrenchingly lost. Her speech is beautiful, crisp – perhaps a residual effect of having a French accent deliver Shakespearean English, but it works completely. Every word means something to her.
The power shifts between the pair are stunning; public and private is made so much of. In front of his people, Lady Macbeth is the serving, devoted wife – in private, she is his devil’s advocate, a quiet puppeteer. As the film goes on, however, their power falls away, and we see them for what they really are – wreckages in crowns. Their morals are as desolate as the heaths that surround them, their crowns no more than a trophy built on the backs of murder and betrayal.
Though the DVD’s extras are interesting – an interview with Justin Kurzel and a focus on Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth prove fascinating to any Shakespeare lovers – it might be worth watching them another day. What you really want to be left with is Kurzel’s final image; a young boy, holding a sword, running into an abyss of ash and smoke. Whether it be prophetic or solely stylistic, you couldn’t leave a film on a more powerful moment.
Dir: Justin Kurzel
Scr: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso
Prd: Olivier Courson, Danny Perkins, Tessa Ross
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki
DOP: Adam Arkapaw
Music: Jed Kurzel
Run time: 113 minutes
Macbeth is available on Digital HD January 25th 2016 and is out on DVD, Blu-Ray & Limited Edition Blu-Ray Steelbook February 1st 2016.