William Shakespeare’s Scottish play gets a highly stylized, moody and occasionally mystifying update, courtesy of Justin Kurzel, the Australian director responsible for the haunting “Snowtown.”
For the poor souls who haven’t cracked “Macbeth” since high school (or those current students looking for an easy study guide), Kurzel’s adaptation isn’t going to do you any favors — the whispered line readings make the Bard’s verses all but incomprehensible and, at times, numbingly dull. But for Shakespeare devotees who delight in debating the merits and flaws of previous big screen attempts from the likes of Orson Welles and Roman Polanski, Kurzel’s entry is an interesting one.
This version begins with an unsettling sight: Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) witnessing the burial of their dead child atop a gusty, gray hill in the desolate Scottish Highlands. The mourning transitions into a stunningly violent and mystical battle sequence, clouded by fog and mist and slowed in parts with an almost video game-like vulgarity, where Macbeth hears the witches’ prophecy that he will be King.
It is in this war-weary and grief-stricken state that Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to murder King Duncan (David Thewlis). Ambition and greed fill their voids, and Macbeth becomes the executor of their future.
Malcolm (Jack Reynor), King Duncan’s heir, witnesses the murder and flees, adding an immediate tension to everything that happens after. More violence follows.
Once Macbeth assumes the throne, he begins his slow descent into madness. Fassbender, who has mastered the tricky rhythms of Quentin Tarantino in “Inglorious Basterds” and Aaron Sorkin in “Steve Jobs,” delivers Shakespeare as confidently and effectively (if too quietly) — coming alive as he loses his mind. No one plays agony quite like Fassbender. The banquet scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo (Paddy Considine) is a particular highlight, though less terrifying than Polanski’s rendering.
Macbeth’s ever heightening paranoia provides a much needed engine for the film, which, despite the visual interest, comparatively brisk pacing and mesmeric battles, is weakened by those largely whispered and mumbled lines.
Kurzel’s “Macbeth” is also stripped of unnecessary adornments in the script, story, and set design. You feel like a settler on an uninhabited, unforgiving land. He’s even compared it to a Western. The set design is spare, purposeful and authentic. The settings are cold and small in contrast to the spectacularly harsh landscapes.
The austereness allows for bold choices, like the shock of blue eyeshadow that is streaked across Lady Macbeth’s eyes. It also makes her dreamily bright sleepwalking scene that much more haunting.
Instead of affecting a Scottish lilt, Cotillard retains her native French accent, which proves effective in making the inimitable Lady Macbeth seem even more mysterious. She’s even given another dramatic scene in which she witnesses the execution of Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki, on screen far too briefly) and her children.
Indeed, death looms over everything here, and weighs increasingly heavily on this childless couple. This “Macbeth” brings war, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief to the fore in a more visceral way than others have been able to show, and in this way Kurzel has put his stamp on the canon of “Macbeth” film adaptations.
Bringing Shakespeare to the big screen can be a thankless task. Kurzel has a fearless eye and cinematic flair and his “Macbeth” is a bold, beguiling experiment that is perfectly fit for the now.
“Macbeth,” a Weinstein Company release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, but contains realistic depictions of violent warfare and disturbing imagery. Running time: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.