A Majestic Vision
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard give powerful performances in this visually stunning, harrowing and often inspired take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.
15, 113 mins
‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, or so William Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV Part II in 1597, but perhaps nowhere is this statement more true than with his 1606 tragedy Macbeth. Focussing on the titular character’s journey down a murderous path after three witches prophesy that he will become King of Scotland, the play is perhaps the quintessential tale of power, guilt and betrayal. It has been performed numerous times, yet in this 2015 film version, director Justin Kurzel finds innovative new ways to stage the action and put across the dialogue, and in doing so gives his Macbeth a vitality and freshness which makes it utterly superior.
The original play is a simplistic one in many ways, with an arguably very threadbare plot, but here the key is that Kurzel has allowed its emotional spaces to be filled in, be it through added or expanded scenes, atmospheric cinematography or simply very subtle performances. The Bard’s original language is used well, but sparingly, with every event well-constructed so that the accompanying words have maximum meaning and impact. Both visually and emotionally, this Macbeth is a force of nature.
Having two actors of the calibre of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard playing Lord and Lady Macbeth is a major coup. The pairing, though initially unconvincing – both actors appear to be mumbling their lines in a daze at the beginning – grow to be incredibly powerful over the course of the film. They document their characters’ emotional progression very well, playing them as people possessed, as though in a dream, by an idea of power that consumes them, gradually shifting from doubt to madness, bitterness, regret and utter desolation. The supporting cast are equally brilliant, with Paddy Considine capturing the anguish and misplaced loyalty of Banquo, and Sean Harris giving a searing, savagely impassioned performance as Macduff.
In addition to superb casting choices, Kurzel’s Macbeth creates a unique atmosphere in other ways too. All the traditionally pivotal scenes in the play, like the Three Witches on the heath, the ‘dagger’ soliloquy and the climactic battle, are handled intelligently and in original and unexpected ways. The haunting strains of the score, by Justin Kurzel’s brother Jed, help the film immensely, giving everything a sense of heft and purpose – and, by the end, one of tragic inevitability. This is only fuelled by the stark landscape of mist-capped mountains, barren plains and white skies which the film conjures up, and which often has such impact as to seem like another character.
This adaptation feels almost alive in its intensity, appealing to such strong human emotions and alluding to such universal truths about grief, ambition, loyalty and power that it cannot help but affect you. In this year of all years, the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we see just why we need his work – for its profundity, but also for its endless capacity to be retold and reimagined, with a different emphasis. It’s apt that this Macbeth, whilst retaining its period trappings, is one for the times, which offers no definitive answers as to why humans do terrible things, but leaves multiple interpretations hanging in the mist.
But despite the story’s inherent tragedy, to me this film’s craft and structure make a rewatch a tantalising prospect, because of its many moments of near-poetic beauty. From eerie slow-motion battle scenes to breathtaking scenic shots and long pauses over tormented faces, it has an eye for both the foul and the fair. There are also a number of other brilliant creative touches in this Macbeth which mark it out as a potent retelling, full of ideas, and one which has certainly planted itself in my mind.
I don’t know whether or not Kurzel’s take on The Scottish Play came to him whilst in a dream, but with its ethereal atmosphere and the otherworldly air that he has given to medieval Scotland, it certainly feels like it could have done. Stylish, emotional and full of meaning, Kurzel’s majestic new vision of an old tale will stay with you long after it has exited the screen. Hail Macbeth.