MACBETH. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Elizabeth Debicki, and David Thewlis. Directed by Justin Kurzel. MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong Violence).113 min.
This British drama is a very dark translation of William Shakespeare's famous play of the same name, and it was filmed on location in rural Scotland and England. "Macbeth" has been brought to the cinema screen many times before - by Orson Welles in 1948 and by Roman Polanski in 1971, for instance. The director of this film (Justin Kurzel) is Australian. He directed "Snowtown" (2011)), and his interpretation of "Macbeth" is highly distinctive.
Shakespeare's tragedy is the story of a brave Scottish general, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), who is destroyed by "vaulting ambition" to be King. The film is savage, stark, and powerful.
In the film, as in the play, Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches that one day he will rise to the throne of Scotland. In his destructive desire to fulfil the prophecy, he is spurred on by the forceful resolve of his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard). Fulfilling the witches' prediction, Macbeth murders King Duncan of Scotland (David Thewlis) brutally, and takes the throne.
This is an intense, compelling film. The clash of steel is heard and seen among swirling mists over the plains and hills of Scotland, and much blood flows from the fighting. The production makes for great cinema, but parents of school children who might be studying the play need to think carefully about allowing their children to see the film. It is vividly gruesome.
The film is not a timid interpretation of Shakespeare's classic work in any way. The film opens with a child's funeral, and the scene soon shifts to soldiers fighting bloodily with Macbeth in Scotland's civil war. An interesting aspect of the movie, is how wordless its action is. The power of the film clearly lies in its visuals, though when characters voice Shakespeare's words, they do so to great effect. Lady Macbeth's famous Act V soliloquy, "Out, Damm Spot!", delivered by her in misery and guilt in a tiny wooden chapel set high in the Scottish mountains, and watched by the ghost of her dead child, is powerful cinema at its best.
The public witness to the killing of Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her children, ordered by Macbeth, is a chilling example of the film's graphic staging and direction. Shakespeare's words are heard, but the visual impact of seeing the victims strapped to their funeral pyre is stunning. Shakespeare's work is interpreted to emphasise social relevance for dramatic effect. The lust for power that grips Macbeth and his wife, for example, is attributed partly to the loss of their child which is the focus of the film's extraordinary opening scene. The dark lighting and colour toning of the film's carefully arranged scenarios are superb, slow motion and silhouettes are used to great effect, and the photography of the Scottish landscape is outstanding.
The acting of Fassbender and Cotillard in the film is exceptional. Cotillard magnificently displays the gradual acceptance of defeat with gestures, movement and words that project her inner turmoil, while Fassbender brings to Macbeth a physically intense presence warped by fierce ambition. The torment of Macbeth and his Queen escalates as Macbeth, unable to live with the terrible deeds he has done, takes refuge in madness.
Kurzel's direction is uninviting and coldly emotional, but brilliant. There is an unbelievable sparseness to his direction that highlights the fatal consequences of the actions of Macbeth and his wife, and Kurzel makes wonderful use of visual symbols: both witches and soldiers, shrouded by the mist, turn back as fate steps in; and Macbeth's coronation crown could be what his subjects assume it is, but it might also be a set of tiny headstones for a child's grave.
The film as a whole is a startling adaptation of Shakespeare's play. It is bleak and unforgiving and incredibly well acted by Fassbender and Cotillard. The movie is a spectral feast that is visually stunning, with the grim consequences of war and ruthless ambition everywhere to be seen.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 1, 2015