Reviewed by Thomas Emmet
Do we need another Macbeth? The infamous Scottish play has a rich history on celluloid from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood to the extremely potent Polanski version filmed after his wife was brutally murdered to the Mumbai based adaptation “Maqbool”. Should it, star two in demand actors? Should it, be filmed by a director on the rise whose previous output has been set entirely in Australia? Should a French woman with a dodgy past in English-language cinema attempt a Scottish accent? The answer to these questions and more is luckily yes.
It is quite hard to find fault with Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, so for the sake of being able to praise it to its fullest extent, let’s going to iron out the few issues there are early on. There is a scene setting description very early on that seems more at home at the start of a Star Wars film than in a Shakespeare adaptation. Marion Cotillard, despite being the best she’s been since her days as a dialogue free extra, still misses a few nuanced moments as Lady Macbeth. There are also occasional moments when she speaks entirely in vowel sounds. There is some added material deepening the characters humanity but also possibly changing their reasoning. These minor flaws aside the film is an exceptional piece of cinema.
The opening fight is visceral, fantastically loud and violent. Kurzel has taken the inferred bloodiness in Macbeth and painted the screen with it, using every opportunity to use the colour red from his director’s easel. Fassbender tears through the soliloquies, as at ease being a ferocious warrior as he is in the slow meltdown following his murder of Duncan. There is a certain sad humour he adds to this breakdown, in one time-lapse shot he is seen running round his bedroom brandishing a sword at unseen enemies. The banquet scene, where he hallucinates a recently dispatched friend, is the highpoint of the film with Cotillard at her iciest and most regal and Fassbender subtly succumbing to paranoia and unsteadiness.
The supporting cast is also incredible. Jack Raynor finally gets something to chew on following his overrated turn in What Richard Did. Sean Harris brings the same off-putting charisma he utilized to save Mission Impossible 5 from bargain bin obscurity to his portrayal of Macduff. Banquo has never been more admirable, and then later pitiable in Paddy Considine’s hands. And it looks beautiful. The smoky battlefields of the early scenes give way to roomy cathedrals that still can’t alleviate Fassebender’s introspective claustrophobia and karma-onset dementia. And then, in a culmination of the blood spilt before, the final battle takes place in a red mist, a bloody gloaming in which Macbeth is finally given the retribution he deserves.
The fantastic thing about this Macbeth is that it is more than the sum of its parts. Fassbender hypothetically could have been a timely but banal Macbeth. Kurzel could in theory have directed a workaday adaptation of the great bard’s play. Cotillard could have most likely ruined the earnest attempts of the previous two mentioned. But it works on all levels. It is overwhelming in its larger moments, but enjoys its smaller moments even more. The recurring motif of a young boy killed in the first five minutes serves as both a convenience for Macbeth’s dagger speech but also as a symbol of Macbeth’s loss as the film goes on. Everything in the film serves that double purpose: the obvious surface level but then the wonderful depths that are going on beneath.