Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth—starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard—opens on a shot of a dead child’s face and only gets darker from there. While Shakespeare’s play about the Scottish thane and his wife who murder their way into power has never been a joyous romp, there’s something staggeringly bleak about this latest film adaptation.
Maybe it’s Kurzel’s washed-out panning shots of the cold and unforgiving Scottish highlands—a far cry from the lush green landscape of Outlander—and his filthy, blood splattered battle scenes (all impossible to portray on the physical limits of a stage). Or the understated-though-impressive performances by Fassbender and Cotillard who—as Lord and Lady Macbeth—deliver most of their soliloquies in low and furious whispers. The film’s orchestration consists almost solely of strings, all played so deep and grimy that they almost sound like an organ. Go into it expecting a single moment of humor or reprieve and you are sure to leave disappointed—which is not to say that this version of Macbeth is an altogether disappointing piece of art.
This is Shakespeare for realists. Or Shakespeare for viewers who are more partial to the unflinching violence of Braveheart than they are to the iambic pentameter of Macbeth’s “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” monologue. You’ll rarely see Fassbender’s Macbeth ranting bombastically, even as he slips further into madness. Instead, his inner chaos is—quite impressively—reflected through pain in his countenance. Fassbender has a gift for being menacingly captivating (a fact that becomes even more disturbing when coupled with his real-life rumored abuse history) and his chemistry with Cotillard is so off the charts that you can easily envision how two people with that level of horniness for each other could talk themselves into killing anyone who stands between them and the throne.
But the film does lose something in all its realism and subtly. After all, Shakespeare’s Macbeth—with its Weird Sisters and “Double, double toil and trouble”—is not without fantasy and humor. But in Kurzel’s world, even the three witches are given a more realistic, bleak dress-down as they appear out of the ash and dirt of battle to deliver Macbeth’s royal prophecy. (Worth pointing out that despite losing their overwhelming witch-iness, the Weird Sisters—with long wild hair and delicate scarification decorating their faces—look amazing.)
As someone who’s more energized by a well-delivered monologue than gritty and graphic scenes of battle and murder (I’m in the minority, I know), I found Kurzel’s Macbeth to be a bit of an emotional slog—not because it was boring (it wasn’t), but because I got tired of film’s gauntness. Overall, I’m a great enthusiast of film adaptations of Shakespeare because, as my college Shakespeare professor loved to point out, “these plays were written to be seen, not read,” but this one left me feeling exhausted...albeit thrilled to be alive now as opposed to alive in eleventh century Scotland.
Those expecting a fully faithful Macbeth adaptation will not be pleased by Kurzel’s version, but if you can get around that—and can stomach scenes of children being hunted in the woods and burned at the stake—it’s well worth a viewing. Just try to avoid it when you have a good mood to ruin.
Macbeth is now playing in select theaters.
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Images via The Weinstein Company.