In what could arguably be called Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy, Michael Fassbender shines as the mad king Macbeth. While the rest of Macbeth flounders a bit in trying to find its footing in what kind of film it wants to be, Fassbender is a force to be reckoned with, delivering Shakespearean dialogue with ease (aside from dropping the Scottish accent often). He begins the film a warrior and is soon traveling along a path to despair as one violent choice after another further unravels his psyche.
The immediate hurdle the film has to overcome was taking a source material that has been redone and reimmagined so many times that it’s nearly impossible to think of an interpretation that could surprise or offer modern audiences something new. The words won’t be changing, so how does director Justin Kurzel set the stage to create something universally well-known while also something fresh?
The result is off kilter, often enjoyable, and sometimes messy, something made crystal clear within the opening moments of the film.
The first big battle sequence is a grandiose mix of old school period piece, drama film-making and contemporary action. There’s the slow motion, dreamlike sequence as two forces sprint at one another, swords waving and faces painted, that turns into shots of the bloody massacre taking place. This is all mixed with shots of the vast, green and blue landscapes with omnipresent fog immersing the battlefield, pulling us even deeper into the dreamlike atmosphere. The merging of the two styles, hedonistic and tranquil, gives it an other worldly tone, transplanting us into this savage time period. If there had to be a film to compare it to, it wouldn’t be to another Shakespeare adaptation, but to this year’s The Assassin. Both films use action and beauty in a way that plays off each other, meandering its way into climactic bursts of energy before receding back into dialogue heavy landscape scenes.
Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw are a visually demanding twosome, and have created a film that’s compelling and at times shockingly immersive. While the second act fails to maintain the attention grabbing presence that the first and last successfully held, it regardless is beautiful to look at. Whether the story is taking place outside in towering, fairy tale forests, landscapes burnt to a fiery crisp, or in the haunting halls of Macbeth’s hollow castle, the film never looses it’s artistic edge. Visually, Kurzel and Arkapaw have created an immersive world that is completely complimentary to the story they telling. Brilliantly scored by Jed Kurzel, the film has ambitious elements of a masterpiece type of classical film-making that we don’t see attempted often enough. While there is the slow motion at the start, the film doesn’t try and use as visual trickery, rather relying on the overwhelming and isolating power of nature to sell the seclusion of these people, the mental decline of Macbeth, and the dreary, rain soaked Scottish countryside that they all reside on. Macbeth is by no means a happy tale, rather spinning the tangled webs of the follies of men and power, and the sickening consequences of taking innocent life.
For all that Macbeth gets right, and there’s plenty, it does get one crucial element wrong.
Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is largely a disappointment, despite early promise as she delivers her first monologue with frightening urgency. However, as the film trucks along she looses much of what made her so instantly electrifying at the start, her monologues turning simpering and sad rather than embittered and edgy. Lady Macbeth is a character who necessitates a performer who can realistically impose her will on Macbeth, and while Cotillard is undoubtedly talented, this role needed a performer who could go toe to toe with Fassbender’s growling and contemplative King.
Cotillard and the stand-still second act are the films most glaring faults. The film emerges at such a brisk pace totally enthralling despite being familiar, that it’s a shame the film looses some of that steam. The supporting cast are all strong, with actors such as Paddy Considine and David Thewlis delivering memorable supporting turns, and Sean Harris’ Macduff gets an explosive and attention grabbing entrance, but once again it’s what we’re seeing, rather than hearing, that truly sculpts a piece of art out of this film.
Cheers of “All Hail Macbeth” sound more like omens of doom rather than celebratory cheers, further indicating the tumultuos path he’s found himself on, and the cries reverberating around his deteriorating mind. The way the Weird Sister’s are used provide markings of how far into the depths of hell Macbeth has fallen, appearing like hallucinations at the start and then playing a twisted Greek chorus for the remainder of the film. Children play a significant part in the film, with the first shot of the film being that of a child of Macbeth’s who’s passed away, to a shot of a children running away into the woods for safety after crying at the death of his father, to a shot in the third act of a young boy picking up a sword. The loss of innocence and the cost of power are themes that rings loud and clear, and who better embodies innocence than a child?
Stunning to watch, impeccably acted by most and providing one of the most inventive and stirring ending images of the year, Macbeth is a strong showcase for most of the talent on board. It’s just a shame the pacing couldn’t match the intrigue of the visuals.
Macbeth is out now.