Justin Kurzel's Macbeth, which is one of the most cinematic Shakespearean works, opens with the still shot of a dead child laying on the ground, surrounded by heather. The film's tone is set from the very start - as raw, grim and filled with great sadness. This is a dark, bloody affair and an unpleasant one too.
If only it was a better movie.
The big issue with the film is the fact that while the film makers took risk, which is always admirable, not many of those risks paid off. It's commendable that Kurzel tries so many things but on the other hand it also makes the film feel quite messy. And when you add Shakespearean lines, all the visual trickery and Kurzel's script adding more confusion? It's really difficult not to get lost.
As inspired as Kurzel's directing is, depending on the moment it
either lets the movie reach great heights or digs a hole for it to sink in. For every brilliant choice - the staging of king's murder, the silent, visual depiction of Macbeth's horror during the battle, the truly inspired (and an actual improvement over source material) way in which the forest comes to the castle in the form of ash - there is a bad one. There are several scenes where I'm not even sure what I was supposed to be looking at and I don't know if I want to find the answers.
The source material is about ambition and the consequences of it. The film as a depiction of that fails completely. It has several scenes depicting it beautifully but as a whole it's really hard to tell what the characters or even the film itself want to be. It is only thanks to Fassbender's riveting performance that it all works. The film never tells us why Macbeth and especially his wife want power so much. There is no cause given to the film's intrigue. The children theme, while very clever and inspired, has no strings to characters' actions, so the film's central conflict is devoid of scriptural spine.
Then there is the issue of not making a lot of sense at times - very early on in the movie I had to let go of looking for any logic when it comes to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth - the film invents several things, the worst of which is having the king's son actually catch Macbeth red-handed and then him, without uttering a single word, escaping after Macbeth let's out words of....what was it really? For either of the characters to do what they have done makes absolutely no sense in that moment.
Then the writers cannot decide what they want Lady Macbeth to be. Is she a woman who suffers because she cannot bear children? Is she an evil schemer who wants position? Is she someone who wants to manipulate her husband by using her body as a weapon in her a disposal? The script throws all those things like wet towels at the door and neither of them sticks. In the effect all those ideas are underdeveloped, at times even contradictory. There simply isn't enough of this character in the movie to properly look into either of those ideas, let alone all of them.
It's quite embarrassing to witness - you can tell what Kurzel was going for, especially in botched Out, damned spot scene (oh God, how they ruined it!), but it absolutely doesn't work. In the effect Cotillard wanders from scene to scene and is almost completely wasted. She has some very good moments - like her first speaking scene which is extremely powerful, she is kneeling and talking about Macbeth's letter with such force and ambition you think her determination is gonna tear the walls down - but she pales in comparison to Fassbender and the way her character is written is truly aimless. That she is French was not an issue at all, the problem is all in the writing and directing choices.
Fassbender walks away with the film easily. I always considered the role of Lady Macbeth to be meatier of the two but that is not the case here. It does help that Kurzel has a much better vision for what he wants to achieve here, showing Macbeth as a man surrounded by death, war and blood that seem to wither any decency he had in him.
Fassbender has not been this good since Shame (I have yet to see Steve Jobs but I'll be surprised if he does better there) - his anguish strikes as powerful as his madness and certain scenes, mainly the one where he tells his wife that his friend and his son need to die too, are truly masterful. He is so good in the role and portrays the depths of Macbeth's madness so intensely you are able to swallow the dumbest writing choices - like having him personally set fire to Macduff's family. In fact this film often feels like the case of ignorant director not spending enough time to actually look into progression of mental disorders he is portraying and an actor of great insight providing powerful work regardless.
At times you really feel sorry for Macbeth, especially in the scenes where he sees the young boy who has fallen in the battle - there is such longing in Fassbender's eyes and such care there, he shows his desire for a child so much better than Cotillard's misguided character. That you still care at that point is only thanks to Fassbender managing to show that perhaps all of this started when he was fighting nobly, all of this war and all of this pain starting the infection in his mind.
The supporting cast does beautifully, especially unrecognizable Paddy Considine as Banquo. He was so wonderful in the role yet thanks to the make up and huge beard I spent the whole movie wondering why this actor, who plays the role so well, seems so familiar until I was enlightened in the end credits. Sean Harris was also very good as Macduff as was David Thewlis who managed to show the kindness of his character in very few scenes he had. Elizabeth Debicki has very short screen time but she is not easy to forget as Lady Macduff.
The film really is unflinching - it's not extremely gory but it is raw and realistic. I don't think I've ever seen a broken nose injury shown as realistically as it does here. Blood pours all around but it is perhaps the vast shots where Fassbender only stands in one small part of them, showing the vast emptiness around him, that are the most affecting. The film uses a great deal of visual tricks - slow motion intertwined with normally paced shots in the first battle scene, fast motion to show Macbeth standing in the middle of the room, almost motionless, editing together a lot of similarly looking shots of him being unable to sleep, showing powerfully just how monotonous and undefeated his guilt has become. There is also a whole lot of simply outstanding individual shots - the ghost of the boy almost invisible and fading away instantly coming to mind.
At times the wonderful framing of the movie - cinematography, editing and Jed Kurzel's tremendous, moody and dark score - add so much to the film, especially in the scene where Macbeth kills the king which is ferociously intertwined with shots of the praying Lady Macbeth and a horse neighing loudly during the storm. Then there is the final sequence which is truly gorgeous to look at and very, very clever, both in writing and in execution.
Macbeth could have been a great film, but it's merely a good one. But it did bring us fantastic performance by Fassbender and is definitely one of the better adaptations of the tragedy, that is yet to receive the adaptation it deserves.
Macbeth (2015, 113 min)
Plot: Macbeth, a Thane of Scotland, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie,Todd Louiso (screenplay),
William Shakespeare (play)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris