(Justin Kurzel, 2015)
Macbeth is - by something like common consent - the most cinematic of Shakespeare's plays. It is noirish in its dramatic setting, dark actions and darker characters, its blood and witchcraft and murder and seduction. It is also uncommonly tight for Shakespeare; taut and relatively pacy. It has a tortured anti-hero, a femme fatale, a few rich supporting roles.
And yet: so many of the screen adaptations of the Scottish play mess it up. Too slow, too literal, too gothic, too stagey, too handsome, too cheap, too silly. Always off somehow. Only Roman Polanski really made a decent fist of turning it into a movie (Orson Welles' seems the least of his Shakespeare adaptations to me) and even that bloody, energetic iteration is a little stiff and awkward.
Well: Justin Kurzel seems to have been commendably focused on making his Macbeth work as a movie. He and his three writers throw out material that doesn't work, and recontextualise whole other scenes, sharpening some themes, abandoning others. His movie is ravishing; an every-frame-a-painting piece of cinema with brutally fine acting from a great cast.
Director of photography Adam Arkapaw films medieval Scotland with pin-sharp precision as if it was a post-Apocalyptic wasteland. There is life here, but somehow the landscape seems desolate, either battered by rain or baking under the sun. The early battle scene is an orgy of slow-motion blood and spittle in the air, intercut with the clamour of the carnage and Macbeth, still on the battlefield, hypnotised by the sight of the Wyrd Sisters.
The boldness of Kurzel's version is in making some definitive decisions about how Shakespeare's ambiguities should be read. So here, Michael Fassbender's Macbeth is firmly a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; hallucinating corpses (the dagger which appears to him is in the hand of a dead youth from that opening battle) and unable to control his seesawing emotions, he is easily swayed by his wife. For her part, Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth is mourning the loss of her own child. The film's opening shot is of the body of the Macbeth child, lying upon a funeral pyre. Both Cotillard and Fassbender play it as naturalistically as they can, mumbling and whispering much of the dialogue. There is no declaiming, little attempt at iambic pentameter. Some lines vanish in an attempt to make scenes more believable and flowing. Fassbender is best in the early stages; numbed and hollow. Later he gets a little more mannered and hammy, but he is never less than magnetic. Cotillard is beautifully vulnerable and emotional.
The rest of a terrific cast match them, especially an (as usual) intense Sean Harris as MacDuff. All contribute to the sense of mounting dread throughout, as does the score by Jed Kurzel and Arkapaw's immense work, which make Macbeth work as a movie in a way that too few Shakeseare adaptations can match. It is beautiful, emotional, visceral and exhilarating.
It is also confirmation that Kurzel is a great talent.