Cannes review of Macbeth
Justin Kurzel’s violent take on Shakespeare’s most dynamic tragedy closes the competition in windswept style. But why couldn’t we hear it?
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis, David Hayman
Cannes, in competition, 113 min
It is surprisingly rare that the Scottish Play becomes the Scottish Film. Relatively brief, full of violence and strong set pieces, Macbeth is easily the most cinematic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. We had a brilliantly quirky Orson Welles version. Kurosawa turned it into Throne of Blood. Roman Polanski delivered a typically dark take in 1971. The petty pace has crept on with little else since.
The braw news is that Justin Kurzel — Australian director of the agreeably horrible Snowtown — has knocked together the most muscular, propulsive version yet seen. It is visually overpowering. The film features an impressively tortured Macbeth in Michael Fassbender and an unusually contained Lady Macbeth in Marion Cotillard. The superb music from Jed Kurzel — the director’s brother — hits some Celtic chords without ever skirting shortbread kitsch.
There were issues, however. At this morning’s screening in the Theatre Lumiere at Cannes, the dialogue was often close to inaudible. I have been told this has not been the case at earlier screenings and will assume that some technical issue was afoot. If so then a stewards inquiry is called for.
The screenplay by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie is a masterpiece of concision. Some favourite characters have gone entirely. Donalbane will not be greatly missed. It’s a shame we don’t get the Porter’s comic speech, but that light interlude would have seemed awfully out of place in a film pressed down by literal and metaphorical clouds. The bloody skeleton of the story lurches forward with Shakespearean entrails hanging from every angle.
We begin with the the death of the infant Macbeth heir, a vast slow-motion battle and the low-key appearance of three weird sisters — two middle aged, one a child — in the mist-soaked sidelines. The “hubble bubble” and the cauldron within which it sounds have gone, but the sisters honed prophecy is the same. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and then king. When he returns to the line of windswept tents that form the army’s base, his famously somnambulant wife urges him to move on King Duncan (David Thewlis) with no delay.
This is a most impressive performance by Cotillard. Though her French accent is almost completely flattened, she brings a lost foreign quality to Lady Macbeth — amplified by our knowledge of her baby’s recent death — that helps explain her urgent need to assert herself in this blasted court. The unhelpful notion of the character as high-end nagging wife is kept in check as Cotillard allows signs of vulnerability to show from her opening moments.
Of course, Macbeth is never portrayed as a great enthusiast for the scheme and, sure enough, Fassbender gives us a man — like Coriolanus — uncomfortable away from the binary conflicts of ancient warfare. A natural ginger, the Kerryman has no trouble convincing us of Macbeth’s Scottishness. Elsewhere, our own Jack Reynor is in robust voice as Malcolm, the initially timorous heir to Malcolm’s throne. Sean Harris lays on furiously as Macduff. Paddy Considine is a weighty Banquo.
Wisely, Kurzel never allows his characters to forget they are in a film and begin declaiming to matinee hordes in row X of the balcony. This is a fiercely cinematic Macbeth. The duologues are murmured rhythmically in tones that allow every pop of saliva to register on the soundtrack (if not the actually words, here). That dedication to the Great God Cinema brings some interesting changes to familiar scenes. A actual dagger appears to be presented to Macbeth before one of the most famous lines. Lady Macbeth delivers her final monologue spread out on the floor of a rough church while snow drifts through the door. Most notably, Kurzel and his writers have found a new way of reworking the play’s least likely moment: the closing Birnam Wood misunderstanding.
Shot in a forbidding, rank, ancient land that recalls folk cinema by Ingmar Bergman such as The Virgin Spring, this Macbeth is simultaneously forbidding and endlessly accessible. Some may regard the latter adjective with suspicion. They should be ignored.