Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Writers: Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie
There’s a reason why Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers, if not the greatest writer, in the English language. Nearly four centuries after his death his plays are still being studied, performed and praised by people all around the world. So innovative was his work and so great was his impact on the art of literature that Shakespearian is now an entire genre in itself as well as an adjective to describe the highest possible quality of writing. When a play has gone through as many revisions, reinterpretations and reinventions as so many of his own have, including and especially Macbeth, you’d think there couldn’t possibly be anything new to add to them. However Kurzel’s offering, which sets the story back in the original Scottish medieval setting, shows that there are still indeed new angles on familiar stories and themes to be found in the Bard’s work.
The film opens with an original scene not found in the original play, the funeral of a young boy. The boy’s parents Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) stand before their infant son in silent misery and grief as the witch’s summit takes place on an overlooking hill. Following his victory in a bloody and vicious battle Macbeth is visited upon by these witches as they pass onto him a prophecy of his kingship, awakening a strong and inflamed ambition within him. His ambition is matched only by Lady Macbeth who impels him to murder the standing king Duncan (David Thewlis) in his sleep. Macbeth’s ascension as king begets a reign of madness, paranoia and terror as he seeks to secure his position by any means necessary. As he grows more in power and his mind sinks deeper into insanity, it is his own pride and arrogance that shall prove to be his undoing.
When a film tackles a story as oft-adapted and performed as Macbeth, it’ll have to bring something truly new and creative to the table in order to distinguish itself from the others. Kurzel’s does so in such a beautifully subtle way through the abridgement of speeches and soliloquies and slight variations in the course of events. Even the smallest variation can have a reverberating effect on the story. He is also able to cast an entirely new light on this familiar story through the inclusion of two original scenes. The first is the afore-mentioned opening which adds an acute element of grief and sorrow to the burning ambition that drives Macbeth’s actions. It is a development that extends and amplifies the overlying tragedy, ferocity and horror of the narrative without altering the fundamental themes and motifs of the story. The second scene is included at the very end of the film which is why spoiler etiquette refrains me from elaborating on it. What I will say is that, much like in Roman Polanski’s adaptation, it is an ending that augments the ominous nature of the story in a dark and foreboding way and is steadfastly true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play.
Fassbender and Cotillard both deliver powerhouse performances as the manic king and his devious wife. Fassbender’s Macbeth is a great and fierce warrior who is unhinged by the loss he suffers. His bereft ambition and fervently violent nature have a maddening effect on him in his rise to power as he consolidates his position in the only way he knows how, through bloodshed. The madness that consumes Macbeth’s mind is portrayed in a breathtakingly depraved manner by Fassbender as his character falls victim to fear and paranoia. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is rendered cold and unfeeling by the loss of her own child and is driven by her grief to drive her husband towards greatness and power whatever the cost. The ruthlessness she exhibits is agonising to behold. It is only upon realising the sums of her ambitions when she comes to understand that no amount of power or wealth can heal her anguish. He heart has been forever broken and has left her a shell of a woman.
Macbeth has always been one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most tragic plays, something which this film exemplifies. It depicts the highlands of medieval Scotland as a chilling, gloomy and desolate place, much like the hearts of its king and queen. Much of the play’s mood and tone is marvellously captured in the imagery and atmosphere of this film from the harsh colours to the coarse dirt, the howling wind, the freezing snow, and the raging fire. The themes of pride, ambition and corruption are stunningly demonstrated by the film’s keen understanding and profound interpretation of the text as well as the harrowing performances of its two leads. It is a film that shows no hesitation or restraint in adapting The Tragedy of Macbeth as the chilling and brutal tale that it is.