Assassin’s Creed

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendon Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

Director: Justin Kurzel

Writers: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage


Video games are unique in that filmmakers seem utterly incapable of making great movies based on them. The most successful recent adaptation that I can think of is Warcraft, a film that I personally enjoyed and felt was very faithful to its source material but which many justifiably criticised for being too cluttered and underwhelming. After decades of trying (and in many cases failing miserably) no one has yet been able to pull off an all-out successful marriage between the two mediums. Maybe its because some of the filmmakers don’t respect the source material and are simply looking to cash in on its popularity. Maybe it’s because video games are often so heavily action-driven and so light on story that they don’t easily lend themselves towards adaptation. Maybe it’s because some genres, like the FPS, tend to place such little emphasis on the characters that the films end up having little to work with. And yet Assassin’s Creed is a popular, acclaimed franchise that provides both a story and characters for the film to work, modify and expand on. So why is this film such an abject failure?

In 2016, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death but is rescued from his execution by the Abstergo Foundation. The CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), also a leading Templar, is searching for the Apple, which holds the genetic code for free will, and believes that Cal is the key to his search. His daughter and head scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) reveals that Cal is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), a 15th century assassin. By persuading him to use the animus, a machine that reads the genetic memory of its host, it is hoped that Cal’s ancestor will lead them to the Apple. Thus the film is taken to Spain in 1492 where the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood is caught up in the Grenada War. There Aguilar and his partner Maria (Ariane Labed) must combat the Templars and locate the Apple in order to keep its secrets safe from those who would misuse it.

Sometimes when a video game movie fails, it’s because the filmmakers just don’t get what it was about the game that attracted people in the first place. It may look the part and sound like it too, but without that vital ingredient it will inevitably disappoint and feel flat. Case in point: a considerable portion of the film’s story is focused on the events of the present, which was literally no one’s favourite part of the game. Yes, I get that the film wants to explore questions and ideas about free will, but the game itself was able to do that well enough without bogging itself down in exposition and presenting subplots about the death of the main character’s mother or the bureaucracy of the Templar’s organisation. Desmond Miles wasn’t the character that all the gamers loved, it was Altaïr and Ezio and all the other assassins in the franchise. In this film we barely get to know Aguilar or his compatriots because we don’t get to spend enough time with them. Maybe that would’ve been fine if the present’s story was more interesting than the past’s, but it wasn’t.

The film reunites Fassbender and Cotillard with Justin Kurzel and Michael Lesslie, with whom they worked on a stunning adaptation of Macbeth. This film holds itself with a similar level of seriousness but is often too dull or ridiculous for the tone to work. The characters are all too busy dispensing overblown, nonsensical exposition for them to display any semblance of a personality. The film trudges along so slowly with such a ceaseless array of conversations spouting vaguely important sounding dialogue that even Shyamalan would find it convoluted. Honestly, a time travelling movie about assassins does not need to be this solemn or serious (the games certainly weren’t). There are a few instances of what I suppose ought to be called fight scenes except that they’re so tediously choreographed, I’m not sure whether the term should apply. With its drab colour palette and tiresome action, there is nothing visually engaging about this film.

This film has made the same mistake that countless others have made whenever they’ve struggled to have something childish or ridiculous taken seriously. They overcompensated and made it pretentious, hollow and boring. There is no life in this film; no colour, no personality, no energy, no anything. The Assassin’s Creed games were often ridiculous, but they were also engaging, lively and fun. As a film lover I found this movie to be without merit; there was nothing compelling about its story or characters, there was nothing spectacular about its action or production, and after it was done I found nothing memorable or worthwhile to take away. As someone who has played and enjoyed the games, I was greatly disappointed that the same property could produce something so critically lacking in inspiration, imagination and animation. Whatever this X factor is that makes video game adaptations immune to great cinema is anybody’s guess, but it’s definitely had its effect on this attempt.

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Macbeth

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.

★★★★★