This latest screen adaptation of “the Scottish Play” opens somewhat surprisingly with a scene Shakespeare forgot to write – the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. Fair enough, though. As we learn later, they did have a child who died and the absence of an heir takes on much significance for Macbeth.
Only after the funeral are we introduced briefly to the three witches before being plunged into a violent, wordless, war painted battle, vaguely reminiscent of Braveheart, as a slow, atmospheric preamble to the treachery, regicide and tragedy that are to come.
Thereafter, however, Shakespeare’s text properly kicks in to be treated with great respect, though not over-reverence, by Australian director Justin Kurzel. Yes, this is a film that takes its time (but then so did the Bard) and that’s no bad thing because we are given the opportunity to get to know the principal characters.
The witches reappear after the battle with their predictions that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and king of Scotland, and that Banquo will be the father of future kings, thus foreshadowing the mayhem that will follow.
In Shakespeare’s hands and under Kurzel’s direction, Macbeth is essentially a medieval thriller, a moody, dark – in appearance as well as content – story of rough, tough men striving for dominance in a rough tough land of bleak, unwelcoming scenery. This is Scotland as a kind of wild frontier, cloaked in fog, mud and rain.
Inevitably, the success of the film stands or falls by the performances of its protagonists, and here Kurzel is splendidly served by Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as his wife. The emphasis throughout is on him and he responds extremely well. Cotillard, though given less to do, is equally good as a woman who is still one of the coldest, most clinical villainesses in literature. Her diction, too, is exemplary in a movie where the broad Scottish accents sometimes make the dialogue hard to grasp.
This is not perhaps a conventional interpretation of the play but it’s a powerfully convincing one. The big set pieces – the savagely brutal murder of King Duncan (David Thewlis), the appearance of Banquo’s ghost (Paddy Considine) at the banquet, the battle and hand-to-hand combat scenes – are full of tension. So, too, is Macbeth’s descent from naked ambition to remorse and something approaching madness.
The film runs for less than two hours, which means a few well-remembered scenes have been omitted but there are some intriguing innovations in their place. I promise you will never have seen the crucial moment when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane shown quite as it is here.
In the past Macbeth has been filmed by such directors as Kurosawa, Welles and Polanski. Kurzel’s version bears comparison with all of them.
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