Owing to its length, content and simple narrative, Macbeth is arguably the Shakespearean play best suited for cinematic adaptation. As with most of the bard’s surviving works, there have been countless adaptations over the years with all manner of interpretations and representations. As a life-long Akira Kurosawa fan, Throne Of Blood is my personal favourite. But coming in a close second is easily this fine release. As such, I should warn you in advance, this review is going to be a gush-fest of praise. From the central elements to the minute details, everything is wonderful.
If you are unfamiliar with the play, the plot is very straightforward. Macbeth [Fassbender] is a loyal subject of the Scottish king Duncan [Thewlis]. After winning a great battle for his lord, Macbeth and his colleague Banquo [Considine] encounter a group of witches who prophesise that Macbeth will become King of Scotland, while Banquo’s heirs will be king, though he will never be. It’s a cryptic message that the friends laugh off but when an element of the prophecy immediately comes true, they grow curious. Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth [Cotillard] believes the omen and presses her husband to act upon it. Hungry for power and loyal to his wife, Macbeth kills Duncan and is quickly crowned king. From here the couple grow suspicious that they will be caught or usurped from the throne, leading both of them to insight a bloody reign, executing all those who would oppose or question Macbeth’s rule.
First thing to note is that there are surprisingly few Scots in this ‘Scottish film’ but everyone does such an astounding job that it’s hard to genuinely discredit them for it. As with a lot of Shakespeare, the two leads own the entire film. They occupy almost every scene and the real meat of the memorable dialogue and powerful scenes are awarded to them. Meaning, it’s impossible not to talk at great length about these two pivotal roles and the weight of expectation laid upon these thespians is not only a substantial one but has been embodied and reinvented multiple times over hundreds of years, worldwide. Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth is a very internalised interpretation. All the rage, paranoia, guilt and confusion is there but it’s neither hammed up nor extravagantly presented (the pitfall of all actors attempting Shakespeare). Haunting, self-contained and teaming with passion, it’s an absolutely fantastic portrayal. Sharing equal praise is Marion Cotillard’s version of Lady Macbeth. Again, the power hungry scheming which gives way to doubt and fear is all there but is also devoid of woeful embellishment. This feels like a very real manifestation of a potentially very caricatured individual. To my mind, this is probably the best I’ve seen from Cotillard and will be hard to top. As stated, the supports largely boil down to two or three roles but in all honesty absolutely everyone, whether they have dialogue or not, is phenomenal. The extras embody the faceless hordes that initially stand behind Macbeth then in between him and his ambitions, those put to the sword in the mad king’s reign of terror display genuine fear of death and the state of their country and his closest allies and rivals convey a wealth of suspicion and distrust in simple expressions and exchanges.
Going hand-in-hand with the superb acting is the troika of cinematography, editing and direction. This film is a visual delight. The cinematography is inventive and marvellously crafted, making use of natural light, candles and crepuscular rays to great effect. The editing is also very interesting, repeating and reliving key moments in the story as a representation of the lead’s internal dialogue, heightening the madness and insecurities. All of which is brought together by utterly masterful direction. Combining independent, mainstream and art-house concepts to produce something worthy of Kurosawa himself. Kurzel commands great understanding of visual cinema and like Kubrick or Anderson ensures that every single frame is a painting, imbued with depth, emotion and visceral beauty. With these elements firing on all cylinders it would be easy to sully the whole thing with inferior audio work. Thankfully the sound design is rich and the score is simple but completely haunting, grand and vastly encompassing; both linking and owning everything it accompanies.
On top of everything else, the film is graced with spectacular production design. The hair and makeup are gritty and real, giving everyone a dishevelled un-madeup look. The sets are rustic and simple, trying to strike a balance between historical accuracy and visual resplendence. The costumes too, feel real and battle-worn, combining simple fabrics and designs to make very plausible attire. Characters are adorned in matching shorn hair and thick beards, rather than the long braided ginger hair and kilts that most adaptations north of the border tend to adopt. And although it’s not an element that can be controlled, the choice to film in Scotland and England ensures that the weather plays a key role in the setting. The rain, fog and wind creep into every shot without feeling false or synthetic. And with a feature like Macbeth which draws heavily on the cold, bleak but undeniably beautiful Scottish terrain, it’s vital for authenticity.
I always like to balance out an extremely positive review with at least some form of negative aspects highlighted but in truth, the only problems I can see this film having are with specific types of audience members. There are those who will claim they can’t understand the language or the accents, Shakespeare purists who won’t care for the abridged dialogue and those who won’t like the way in which the film is presented. But to my mind, these are not problems with the film but with potential audience perceptions. Macbeth is eloquent cinema and deserves every ounce of praise I have to offer.
2nd October 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
For those familiar with the source material, Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot” speech is a quintessential one and probably the most famous part of the play. It’s the moment when the woman who has had nothing but confidence and given nothing but assurance that her husband has performed his duty, loses faith and in many adaptations begins scrubbing at her hands or roaming the castle, hands raised, wailing maniacally. The approach here, however, is extremely novel and what’s more very powerful and incredibly beautiful, despite being a single uninterrupted shot. Wondrous acting.
Sean Harris is a great talent. For lack of better phrasing he has one of those faces that directors love to work with and a piercing stare that intimidates everyone around him. Despite being slightly small in stature, his portrayal of Macduff (Macbeth’s biggest threat and outright opposer) is a menacing one. Macduff isn’t the gentle prince, nor is he a callous murderer. This is a family man driven to vengeful rage, a noble warrior void of the desire to sit upon a throne. And Harris captures all of this brilliantly.
“O full of scorpions is my mind”
In A Few Words:
“Shakespeare adapted as it should be”