As a filmmaker, it is surely daunting to tackle texts which are as iconic as the works of William Shakespeare. How can you add your own spark of originality to a play which has been performed and appreciated for over four hundred years? That is precisely what director Justin Kurzel aims to do with his reimagining of Macbeth, told through a much darker lens than we’ve seen in past efforts.
Kurzel gracefully calls upon the freedom of mobility that comes with the medium of film. Through rearranging the chronology of some of the play’s lines, the film is able to create context for the audience in the form of memories and visions. A beautiful example of this is hearing the witches’ prophecy after the viewer has already witnessed the king proclaiming what is to be. That way, the audience is given more information than the characters, giving us insight into some of their decisions.
Some of these alterations can come across as pretentious, such as the unnecessary use of slow motion and many shots of nearly frozen images without the assurance of either dialogue or action. However, the artistic license is spirited, if not also overdone. Not to mention, the set pieces are intricate and bizarrely gritty in a way that adds depth to the story. Everything from the decaying cottages to the eerie crown give the film a sense of dirty composure that makes the story even more compelling.
From the open scene, we see the anguish that will drive Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) for the duration of the film. Directly after burying his only child (a surprising but welcome addition), Macbeth must fight the conquering army before meeting with the famed clairvoyants. He is driven by tragic loss and the brutality of war just as much as he is by his blind ambition. The film adds perspective by adding the realism to the ongoing battle, as opposed to keeping this aspect of the setting in the background.
As is to be expected from a Shakespearean adaptation, the acting far surpasses the other elements of this film. Fassbender shines as the titular character, displaying both the conflicted nature of the destructive man and his gradual descent into madness. His perfect sense of timing and emotion make his delivery of iconic lines feel original.
Although Lady Macbeth is given a smaller part in this film than she has before, Marion Cotillard is able to use her gifts as a performer to display the complexity of the role. Lady Macbeth is one of the most compelling characters in literature, mainly because of her insatiable thirst for power and the control she is able to foster over her husband. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is as damaged as she is competitive, downplaying the outrageous way in which the character is often portrayed.
The artistry of the cinematography cannot be overlooked. Intense scenes are interwoven with gorgeous shots of the Scottish countryside. It is in these moments that we are able to get a much broader sense of the setting than we would on its traditional stage. Still, the camera focuses in on close ups of characters, creating a feeling of claustrophobia even in this immense space.
Color is also prominently featured, specifically through reds. As Macbeth falls deeper into the trap in which he has entangled himself, the color is more frequently placed throughout the frames. By the end of the film, the entire sky is crimson, masking the features of the once beautiful landscape of Scotland. We are forced to see the ways in which Macbeth is overtaken by his own greed and fear.
This film expects its audience to have a familiarity to the source material. Nothing is overtly explained and some of the scenes from the play which further constructed the exposition were left out of the film. While it is a well-known tale which has been told time and time again, it wouldn’t hurt to go into the theater with a working knowledge of the plot.
The beauty of Shakespeare’s words is proven by their universality. While the stylistic diction of years past may be lost on some of today’s viewers (the man who sat next to me in the screening snored his way through the majority of this film), their meaning is just as biting now as it was when the play debuted. We are all victims of fate, whether or not we accept this inevitable truth.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is one of the most gripping adaptations of the Scottish Play to date, which is saying something considering how many there have been over the last few centuries. It is harsh and unforgiving yet it is driven by a complex batch of forces, much like its intriguing characters. Just when you think that you know what to expect, Kurzel adds his unique touch to this staple of drama.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Brian Thompson currently resides in Chicago, where you can find him watching a matinee at Music Box or enjoying a book in the park. He also enjoys talking about movies on his blog: https://southernfilmcritic.wordpress.com/.