Some directors struggle to get away from the inherent staginess of Shakespeare’s original plays, or at least seem content to let Shakespeare’s torrent of words tell the story. Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, The Turning) goes the other way, telling his story of murder, guilt and madness with sumptuous, captivating visuals while the words ebb and flow in the background. As a result, we don’t have to hang on Banquo or MacDuff’s every word to get the gist of what’s going on – it’s all there in those tortured expressions and ominious landscapes.
Michael Fassbender coolly conveys the various stages of Macbeth, a soldier who schemes and murders his way to the station of king in 11th century Scotland. We watch him shift from saucer-eyed receiver of his bloody fate to cold-blooded assassin, heartless tyrant, aided and abetted by Marion Cotillard’s magnificently imposing Lady Macbeth.
Kurzel makes a virtue of his low budget, shrouding his armies in stylish mist and crimson smoke – a technique that hints at a larger canvas without having to go to the embarrassment of trying to render it with unconvincing CGI. His palette alternates starkly between saturated colours and the washed-out gloom of Macbeth’s tomb-like castle. The result is an immersive period film that sucks you down into its belly, hypnotising you with its steady rhythm.
The supporting cast are all superb in their smaller roles: David Thewlis as King Duncan, Paddy Considine as Macbeth’s ally Banquo and Jack Reynor as Malcolm, Duncan’s son. My favourite is easily Sean Harris (Prometheus, The Borgias) as the suspicious MacDuff, whose performance, delivered through gritted teeth, is perfect for this brooding take on the Scottish Play.
The witches, the dagger, the “out damn spot” moment – they’re scenes so ingrained in our culture that they could almost be described as cosy, but Kurzel finds a way of casting them in a new and disturbing light. These witches on the blasted heath no longer babble over cauldrons, but instead loom out of the screen with a spectral presence. The dagger that appears before Macbeth, the final nudge the anti-hero needs to commit his murderous act, is now borne by the ghost of a young boy slain on the battlefield. It’s a Macbeth for an earthier Game Of Thrones era.
Macbeth sets its tone from its startlingly cold opening shot: a dead child, Lord and Lady Macbeth’s, lying dead in the centre of the shot. Kurzel sometimes has his actors deliver their monologues directly into the lens, like vintage Jonathan Demme. As a period piece, Macbeth has none of the cosy surface gloss of a Ridley Scott film like Kingdom Of Heaven or Gladiator. It has its own air of shadowy menace.
The celebrated “When shall we three meet again” line also comes near the beginning, perhaps even the second shot, establishing the identity of this story’s more low-key witches. (I really liked the costume and make-up design, incidentally; the scarification on the witches’ foreheads is a subtle yet effective symbol of their otherworldiness.)
I can’t help thinking this is a subtly different performance from Fassbender. Some of his more recent turns have had the showy air of the movie star about them. This is a self-contained, internalised version of Macbeth, a take on the character who doesn’t amplify his anger and madness for the sake of viewers sitting at the back of the theatre. The scene where he meets the witches is a superbly-staged case in point: the camera invites us to study his physical reaction to the witches’ predictions; his sense of dread at his potential fate.
Likewise Marion Cottilard’s Lady Macbeth, who’s a kind of proto-femme fatale at first, but whose cold attitude to killing is shattered when she sees the kind of man her husband has become. (Here’s a reminder that, as cruel as Game Of Thrones can be to women and children, Shakespeare got there first.)
Placing a version of Macbeth before cameras is one thing, but using the language of cinema to enhance and amplify a 500-year-old story is something else entirely. The mixture of pitch-perfect performance, great editing (check out the Nic Roeg-like intercutting of present and past in one key, violent scene) and bold cinematography are more than garnish on Shakespeare’s text – they bring out its inherent light and shade. From the grey opening scene to the crimson-hued end, this is a bold, powerful rendering of Shakespeare’s bloody tale of murder and madness.
Macbeth is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd October.
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