Justin Kurzel follows his suffocatingly ominous, true crime-inspired debut Snowtown with an adaptation of the quintessential Shakespearean tragedy that’s similarly gloomy, but turns the drama unapologetically up to 11. This ferocious, masterful interpretation of the Scottish play lets rip with an onslaught of visual and emotional bravado, setting its story of ruthless ambition and spilt blood amid billowing smoke and red, raging fire.
Michael Fassbender makes a mighty, all-comers-slaying Macbeth – a general whose superb swordsmanship, courage and decency inspires the king’s army to victory against the rebels, in a bloody and desperate battle on the dank and misty Ellon Moors, the horror of which is conveyed in striking slow motion.
Of course, his heroism is all too fleeting for he’s heading for a spectacular fall, here played as a descent into hell. When Macbeth and fellow soldier Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches, they prophesy that Macbeth will first become Thane of Cawdor, then king, and that Banquo will father a line of kings. Their first prediction quickly comes to pass when the existing thane is executed as a traitor, leading Macbeth’s wife (Marion Cotillard) to urge that he take the throne by murdering King Duncan (David Thewlis). After he obliges, the fallout and creeping guilt brings them both to their knees.
Screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso trim and tweak the original text expertly: inserting the death of Macbeth’s child at the outset – a babe who haunts Lady Macbeth later in the story, in an ingenious take on the “Out, damned spot” scene, rendering her character more sympathetic; while they opt for an abrupt and impactful denouement, which emphasises the eternal struggle against treachery in its focus on an aspiring usurper. And Fiona Crombie’s production design is superb in this rugged, entirely location-shot film, where eeriness abounds and Macbeth’s Inverness castle is traded for a humble yet hair-raisingly sinister campsite (making for an effective contrast once the pair are knocking around the vast, hollow palace in differing manifestations of madness).
Kurzel and his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, True Detective) audaciously amp up and reinvigorate this oft-told tale. The bold approach to imagery pays huge dividends, particularly when paired with the grandiose dialogue, every syllable of which is uttered with total conviction by an exemplary cast (which also includes Jack Reynor as Malcolm and Sean Harris as Macduff) who convey the meaning more assuredly than any available translation.
Delivering his trademark intensity, Fassbender is astonishing – award-worthy, even – as a man beset by demons, nailing both the physicality and psychological anguish of the role, while Cotillard makes for an impressive, comparably mesmeric counterpoint to this battle-scarred brute, a woman whose soft, saucer-eyed beauty can’t disguise her steel. The costume and make-up design (from Oscar winners Jacqueline Durran and Jenny Shircore) are wonderful, too: Lady Macbeth’s liberally applied blue eye-shadow gives her the look of a warrior queen, aping Macbeth’s own war paint and further implicating her in his crimes, and there’s something of the dressing-up box about Macbeth’s ivory crown and Lady Macbeth’s pearl headband that emphasise their illegitimacy.
Ablaze with ambition and harnessing the power of the elements for its agenda, this stormy and sensational Shakespeare adaptation is fit to excite a new generation of admirers – it’s like a cauldron bubbling over with pure cinema. The setting is simple, the story well known, yet the film is so searing it’ll have you pinned to your seat.