It’s not so radical that Snowtown director Justin Kurzel has, for his second film, Macbeth, chosen to interpret the Bard’s Scottish Play as a medieval horror. What’s perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous tale tells of warrior-lord Macbeth (here played by Michael Fassbender, with devilish grin and marbles loose) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard) butchering their way to taking Scotland’s crown, in a hopeless landscape of impenetrable mists, ghosts and meddling witches. He’s a bloodthirsty tyrant (his ‘madness’ here smartly reinterpreted as a soldier’s PTSD) and she’s a ruthless schemer – and these serial murderers are our protagonists. Truthfully, what’s most surprising here is that it took a studio this long to hire a horror filmmaker to adapt the story.
Stylistically, the result is triumphant, a film high on its own sense of dread and delirious from war, like its burnt-out protagonist. The director’s brother Jed Kurzel delivers an appropriately unsettling score of screeching strings, while True Detective cinematographer Adam Arkapaw makes use of location-work around various English and Scottish wilds to paint a picture that’s the anti-Barry Lyndon, the natural beauty of the British countryside drained of color and warmth.
Director Kurzel, meanwhile, eagerly puts his own mud-and-war-paint-smeared stamp on the project; aside from more trivial touches like giving Macbeth’s soldiers short modern haircuts ready-made for war, Kurzel embellishes the original story by placing the husband-and-wife leads at the funeral of their own child at the beginning, and making Malcolm (Jack Reynor) a witness to his father King Duncan’s (David Thewlis) murder.
What’s unfortunate is that Kurzel still doesn’t have full control over his own project, his contemporary approach clashing with the 17th-century text. One of the pleasures of reviewing Macbeth is there’s no need for spoiler warnings (even those who’ve never seen it on the stage or watched an adaptation for the screen already know the story).
It’d be no spoiler, for example, to reveal that Birnam Wood does indeed “come to Dunsinane” at the end of the film. In this version, however, Birnam Wood’s prophesied coming isn’t represented by Macbeth’s foes Macduff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm bringing their forces to the castle camouflaged by the branches of the forest. The forest is instead burned for a tactical smoke screen, with the ash floating onto the fort. It’s part of Kurzel’s attempt to both insert a new realism and do something different with the story, even though his vision ultimately has to accommodate another’s: the original author’s.
The key issue with this striking, searingly performed film is all attempts at realism are often offset whenever anyone utters a line. It’s a film in conflict with itself, striving for the austere verisimilitude of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights while also still feeling beholden to those inescapably artificial words of Shakespeare’s.
Kurzel wishes to make an auteurist statement and offer a naturalism in Macbeth, but he’s in competition with one of the most individual and inherently theatrical playwrights the western world has ever known. The film is told so well visually (this could have made a great near-silent movie, closely resembling as it does Nicolas Winding Refn’s bleak, primary-colored Valhalla Rising) you have to wonder why Kurzel chose to adapt Shakespeare at all. The strong storytelling via the camera and the edit almost negates the need for dialogue.
There are attempts to lend clarity to Shakespeare’s words for modern ears, with success varying depending on who’s speaking them. Fassbender – excellent as a mentally and morally sick man getting progressively sicker – fares well, in a turn that illustrates the actor’s ability to render even those capable of the most monstrous deeds sympathetic. David Thewlis, Sean Harris, and Jack Reynor, meanwhile, make fine support, comfortable getting their teeth into that difficult iambic pentameter.
Unfortunately, Paddy Considine (playing Banquo) and Marion Cotillard don’t cope as well, struggling with accents they never quite master, with Cotillard for one affecting a strange hybrid twang of Scottish and French-English. All, however, spend the film in an almost constant, slightly one-note state of distress, with character definement coming second to the director’s impressive (yet admittedly somewhat hollow) design.
Macbeth bears the mark of a filmmaker purging his stylistic urges all at once. Given a bigger budget after his tiny debut, Kurzel punches his personal style up with copious slo-mo, color filtering, and blood-drenched violence. The early battle scene that sees Macbeth and his army decimate a rival clan is astonishingly crafted, rivalling Chimes at Midnight‘s Battle of Shrewsbury for muddy chaos, for the sense of awful escalation and waste of life. The set-piece is, like the film on the whole, a great calling card for its director, who surely will take his experience here and go on to produce even better work.
As it stands, Kurzel’s beautiful, atmospheric second film is a compellingly hallucinatory take on Macbeth, but it’s one that might ironically have been more successful had it fully committed to its director’s more pragmatic vision for the story.
The artificial dialogue clashes with the austere realism of director Justin Kurzel's approach, but Macbeth should be seen for its striking horror style and Michael Fassbender's mentally-scarred take on the title character.