Macbeth (2016) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and brief sexuality
Running Time: 113 min.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Paddy Considine
Director: Justin Kurzel

Screenplay: Todd Louiso, Michael Lesslie, Jacob Koskoff (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Review published January 28, 2016

Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs, Slow West) stars as Macbeth, who is foretold by three sisters of mystical powers that he will one day be the king in Scotland.  Lady Macbeth (Cotillard, Two Days One Night), a firm believer in the prophecy, convinces her husband, who is a heartbeat away from ascending to the throne, to murder Scottish King Duncan (Thewlis, Anomalisa) and become the leader of the land.  However, once that threshold to murder has been breached, it becomes a toxic force in the lives of the new king and queen, as Macbeth finds himself all too willing to snuff out more, trying to find a sense of peace and tranquility that continues to elude him with each life extinguished.

Australian director Justin Kerzel (The Snowtown Murders, The Turning) directs this stripped-down, savagely violent interpretation of the classic Shakespeare tragedy that concentrates on the agony of a bloody era, especially for those who've decided on murder to quench their thirst for power.  Starkly photographed in natural light with digital cameras in the real Scottish Highlands at its most bleak and harsh, with strong sense of visceral tension, Macbeth escapes the larger-than-life feeling of so many other adaptations from Welles to Kurosawa to Polanski, concentrating on a more intimate and personal connection with its characters. Kerzel frames Macbeth not so much as an ascension to power so much as a descent into madness, as the taint of sin seeps into Macbeth's mind and soul until he can no longer reason.

Stellar, nuanced performances, especially by Fassbender and Cotillard, make this ambitious treatment worth watching, as we can see in their eyes the mournful pain and unraveling anguish that begins to weigh heavily on their hearts, twisted by the corruption of their own murderous misdeeds.  Lady Macbeth, generally portrayed as a co-conspirator, if not a sinful seducer, comes across as truly sorrowful  in seeing the changes in her increasingly psychotic husband that she had been the initial catalyst for, as if all of his insane thirst for power had spilled out as blood over Scotland and nothing could be done to put an end to it once begin.  Cotillard continues to prove herself one of the finest actresses of this, or any, generation, bringing an extra level of diseased dimension to a part that even those who are intimately familiar with the myriad of ways that Lady Macbeth has been portrayed will find fresh and exciting.

To these uninitiated to the play, perhaps this one may not be the one to begin with, as it does pare down much of Shakespeare's dialogue to the desired effect, changing the play's tone and tempo, concentrating more on the grander (but significantly downplayed) speeches and soliloquys, even if it doesn't alter the basic plot.  It's never easy for newcomers to Shakespeare to understand the poetic dialogue, and certainly the lowered tone of speaking and the accents in this film make it especially challenging to follow if you don't already know the main thrust of the story going into it.  Luckily, the emotional elements of the dialogue can be read in the richly expressive, pain-wracked faces of the characters and their body language, which speaks volumes even when the spoken words come off as unintelligible.

Macbeth may not be the definitive take on the play, but it is decidedly different than anything we've seen before, which makes it a quite fascinating film to watch on a number of levels.  Eerie, haunting, dreamlike, barbarous, brutal, and, above all else, the antithesis of "stagy", Kurzel imbues the well-regarded Shakespearian play with a muted sense of sound and fury, but also with plenty of fresh significance to make it worthwhile.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo