Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Whenever a new film version of "one of the classics" comes around one often can't help but ask, what's the point of this exercise, and does the cinema really need yet another re-telling of a story which is probably (begrudgingly) known to almost every school-leaver in the country? For every new "Emma", "Pride & Prejudice", "Great Expectations" and so on, if you're not going to make it better then why bother (in the latter case, by the way, it's never going to be better than David Lean's 1946 version)? Perhaps nowhere more so does that apply than to Shakespeare's plays. Although whereas the aforementioned classic novels are generally adapted "as is" - ie period pieces, costumes of the time etc - the Bard offers greater scope for "re-imagining". Perhaps because they're plays rather than books, so are performed rather than simply read, artists have reacted by aiming for every part of the spectrum when presenting them in all media. On film we've had everything from Richard III as a fascist dictator in an alternate 1930s Britain, Hamlet as a member of the 18th Century European elite, to "Romeo and Juliet" played out as an all singin' all dancin' 60s musical in "West Side Story" (and let's not even get started on Baz Luhrmann!). So the door is clearly wide open.
As one of Shakespeare's best known works, "Macbeth" has had its fair share when it comes to screen versions. The most notable, though, are Orson Welles' outrageous if obviously low-budget 1948 version, shot in 23 days on a single set, with funny costumes and gloriously ripe accents, and Roman Polanski's, from 1971, infamous for its violent content, which was felt to be Polanski's reflection of events surrounding the murder of his wife, several years previously. So this latest version, from Australian director Justin Kurzel, maker of the harsh Adelaide serial-killer film "Snowtown", has certain standards to meet. And against those two vastly different interpretations, he offers us a version which adheres to the modern vogue for upping the "reality quotient", most notably evident in war films, but which does so in a manner which is both startlingly visceral but also surprisingly quiet and perceptive as it opens out the text.
Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, supported by David Thewlis, the ever excellent Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki and the up-and-coming Jack Reynor amongst others, the film comes with a cast with a weighty pedigree. But arriving to fanfares such as "Fassbender was born for this", the expectations seem on the high side. As if to acknowledge that, the film opens with what amounts to a smack in the audience's face; but it's essential to the story as much physically as emotionally. We see Macbeth and his wife burying their baby - unwritten in the play but possibly implied - in silent grief which screams volumes, and informs much of the couple's forthcoming troubles. There follows a vicious battle scene, in which a war paint streaked Macbeth leads King Duncan's army to see off the treacherous Macdonwald. It's highly stylized, mixing chilling, bloody action with moments of slow-motion, which effectively serve to focus in on particular characters. Notably, at one point Macbeth appears to stand still as the battle rages around him, and the dead child soldiers he sees on the battlefield will come back to haunt him. The witches - Weird Sisters - appear in a very downplayed manner; there's no "eye of of newt and toe of frog" type sorcery here. When they make their prophesy to Macbeth, that he will become King, it's matter-of-fact. Although their words are ultimately true - if selective in how and when they reveal that truth - it's never hysterical. Macbeth seems entranced, and it's cleverly implied that they could be a figure of his battle-weary imagination.
Indeed as the story unfolds, Macbeth is played as if he's suffering from shell-shock, post traumatic stress disorder, which would tally with the violence he, and we, have witnessed. A military man numbed by slaughter, he's incapable of rational thought, let alone sound decision making. So when Lady Macbeth hears of the prophesy and urges him to act, it's almost as if he's too tired to resist. The scene in which he tells her he can't go through with it but she retorts by questioning his manhood is riven with sex; she pulls him into her whilst urging him to have the mettle to carry out the deed. Sex and death, what mix more potent?
Familiar readings have Macbeth as a simple tyrant, with his wife as a power-hungry schemer. But as with the best productions it is much more subtle here. Fassbender's noble Thane virtually sleepwalks into an act he admits is wrong, and over which he agonises; Cotillard's Lady appears more opportunistic, egging her husband on but safe in the knowledge of protection of his status if things go awry. After the tragic consequences of their act - the blood curdling, brutal slaying of Duncan, and subsequent murder of his guards - begin to play out, and the roles within the marriage reverse, both actors produce some sublime work.
The increasingly paranoid Macbeth has scorpions in his mind, and whilst he wildly hallucinates - the ghost of Banquo appearing at the feast is played simply, coldly and brilliantly - his wife takes charge. When things do change, the actors come into their own. Fassbender's portrayal of Macbeth's slide towards tyranny is stunning; the more he rediscovers his self confidence, the more it begins to compensate for a string of erratic brutal acts, including the murder of his best friends and allies. As an audience member one can feel for him as much as one abhors what's happening. Cotillard, in the often thankless, more measured role of Lady Macbeth, turns sympathy on its head. Whilst definitely encouraging her husband towards his crime with slithery malice, and steadying him when he starts to lose the plot, her portrayal of a woman eventually confounded by grief, anguish and regret is nothing short of immense. Her final soliloquy, delivered in single, unbroken take, with a lone tear running down her face, is devastating, all the more so when it's revealed how and to whom it's addressed.
And for all the terror, paranoia, and escalating bloodshed, certain themes come strongly through. The horrible actions of the central couple are cast in a light which, whilst not justifying them, at least comes some way to explanation. Fassbender has said in interview "I don't think Macbeth is evil. I think he's damaged". This plays out as much about two people seeking a new opportunity to save themselves from their circumstance - and each other - as it does about a couple hungry for power. Lady Macbeth seems desperate to re-connect with her husband after his long absence at war. Children play a haunting, key role, from the absent infant buried at the start, to the youthful soldiers killed on the field of battle. Few things can be as affecting as the loss of a young life. Cinematically, light and dark have seldom been better employed. The flickering candles in Macbeth's camp and his chapel, as Duncan is dispatched, are eerily numinous and beautiful; and once the new King and Queen move into the spectacular Royal seat at Dunsinane Castle the shafts of sunlight and shadow shining down through the majestic chambers seem to resemble prison bars. The screenplay, credited to three writers in addition to William Shakespeare, makes hefty but economic cuts to the play. But Kurzel articulates the visual poetry so effectively that much of the original descriptive verse isn't missed. The actors emote their lines instead of declaiming them and convey everything necessary.
The setting of this version is not modern, but the context in which it's depicted is - and urgently so. The final battle, played out in a haze of smoke, illuminated a hellish orange (cleverly) by the fire burning as "Birnam Forest comes to Dunsinane", resembles something from "Apocalypse Now". This picture is a worthy addition to the filmic canon of "the Scottish Play"; violent, passionate, visual, visceral, compelling, brilliantly acted, and perhaps crucially, easy to follow, it's a must see. A certain favourite of Eng. Lit students for the foreseeable future.