Scheming and bloodshed are common motifs in Shakespeare’s plays, but Macbeth might be the most directly engaged with the guts of evil, following a conflicted murderer into nasty tangles of messy guilt, a tortured conscience. Macbeth, haunted by ghosts and bewitched by ambition, reluctantly screws his courage to the sticking place and kills King Duncan, then spends the rest of the narrative desperately trying to outrun the moral consequences and mortal punishments he rightly fears. He becomes a tyrant, driven mad. The latest cinematic staging of the play imagines this story in muddy period-appropriate grime and on nightmarish landscapes of vivid elements: misty moors, foggy battlefields, red clouds, pale dawns, pouring rain. Director Justin Kurzel, whose first two films were unsettling crime pictures, here digs into a disturbed mindset with a cinematic theatricality, emphasizing the visceral moments, simmering with unease, a droning score layering a haze of doom and dread over it all.
It opens with a war, two armies charging towards each other on the field of battle. Kurzel cuts between distant wide shots of running with close-ups of extreme slow-motion howls and cries. The clamor and gore seems equally inspired by Braveheart and Game of Thrones, but seen through a dark mirror. Emerging victorious, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is nonetheless disturbed by spectral visions of Witches who prophesize he’ll soon be king. What follows should be familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), encourages this ambition by any means necessary. Chiding him for having too much milk of human kindness, she knows murder would help them rise to power. Soon, Duncan (David Thewlis) is slain, his son, the prince (Jack Reynor), chased off, and the throne passes to Macbeth, who wears the crown heavily with the burden of the price he paid to get it.
Kurzel has assembled a terrific cast up to the challenge of Shakespearean language. Although screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso have abridged the text, the performers have more than enough to chew on. Tremendous supporting work from Paddy Considine (as Banquo, Macbeth’s friend until paranoia sets in) and especially Sean Harris and Elizabeth Debicki (as the Macduffs, who bear the brunt of Macbeth’s wrath, and are Scotland’s last best hope for a better future) gives the movie the heft it needs to power its angst. They have palpable pain, while taking strong center stage are the pair of powerful leads. Cotillard whispers most of her lines, as if her Lady Macbeth can’t quite believe the influence she wields, and then falls apart trying to get that damned spot off her conscience. Fassbender quakes and grits his teeth, hollers and seethes, sweats and bleeds, selling all too well a man in the process of rending his soul in two over surging dueling feelings of guilt and power. It’s a movie of no small emotional movements, roiling with immediacy.
With the look of a hazy walking stress dream brought to life by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective) and cut together by editor Chris Dickens (Berberian Sound Studio), there’s an ethereal quality. The wide screen compositions flicker with bad weather and candlelight; the images flow out of sync with muttered soliloquies, flowing between flashbacks and premonitions, dreams and visions. In The Riverside Shakespeare, literary critic Frank Kermode wrote, “The suffering of the Macbeths may be thought of as caused by the pressure of the world of order slowly resuming its true shape and crushing them. This is the work of time…” Kurzel brings to life this sense of cosmic temporal fracture, the Macbeths’ foul and fair disjunction unleashing a sickness in the world, one that’ll in turn crush them under its chaos. Although strictly, faithfully linear, its visual strategies suggest that it’s all happening at once. The decision to go down a bad path leads inevitably to a host of nasty outcomes.
A commitment to slippery cutting and whispered mumbling has its limitations, and occasional monotony, as Kurzel’s vision doesn’t allow for any modulation of tone. There’s no time for small or soft moments when large anxieties fill the frame’s austere, disturbing beauty. As ostentatious as the striking imagery is, it occasionally detracts from the lines, or works at cross-purposes to the energy of the text. Still, it’s an engaged synthesis of ways to approach the play, with some of the shadowy brooding of Orson Welles’ take, and a bit of the howl of despair of Roman Polanski’s. The climactic confrontation is set on a field of fire, embers churning behind the combatants in a blood-orange sky ripped with smoke. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s passionate. Kurzel takes the play seriously, has great actors delivering the classic turns of phrase, and creates a space of unceasing emotional turmoil. It’s rich, even when it’s not entirely satisfying. Besides, it’s always a treat to see creative minds put to use bringing more stagings of Shakespeare into our lives.