Macbeth review: There will be royal blood
Propelled by impressive central performances from Fassbender and Cotillard, this is one of the strongest film versions of the Scottish Play yet
Film Title: Macbeth
Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis, David Hayman
Running Time: 113 min
The Scottish Play too rarely 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. Adam Arkapaw’s camera fights with mist, smoke and Caledonian murk to locate convincing mid-medieval fug. The film features an impressively tortured Macbeth in Michael Fassbender and an unusually exotic Lady Macbeth in Marion Cotillard. The superb music from Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother, hits Celtic chords without ever skirting shortbread kitsch.
But it’s not all good: this Macbeth is often hard to hear. Those unfamiliar with the play are advised to look at the text before entering the cinema.
The screenplay by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie is, however, 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 interlude would have seemed out of place in a film so 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 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 have gone, but the sisters’ 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) without delay.
This is a most impressive performance by Cotillard. Though her French accent is almost completely flattened, she brings a foreign quality to Lady Macbeth that – amplified by our knowledge of her baby’s recent death – helps explain her 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. Introducing the death of a child as motivation complicates an already muddled psyche. Are the Macbeths post-traumatically stressed? We’ve seen more absurd recalibrations of Shakespearean heroes.
Elsewhere, our own Jack Reynor is in robust voice as Malcolm, the initially timorous heir to Duncan’s throne. Sean Harris lays on furiously as Macduff. Paddy Considine is a weighty Banquo.
Kurzel never allows his characters to forget they are in a film and declaim to row X. This is a fiercely cinematic Macbeth. The duologues are murmured rhythmically in tones that allow every pop of saliva to register. There is, sadly, one huge downside to this intimacy of delivery. So suppressed are the lines that the vowels often swallow the consonants and render the prose unintelligible.
The dedication to the great god cinema brings some intriguing tweaks to familiar scenes. An actual dagger is presented to Macbeth before one of the most famous speeches. 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 re- working the play’s least likely moment: the closing Birnam Wood misunderstanding.
Shot in a rank, ancient land that recalls Ingmar Bergman in Virgin Spring mode, this Macbeth is simultaneously forbidding and (audibility issues aside) accessible. Some may regard the latter adjective with suspicion. They should be ignored.