Macbeth, Thane of Glamis (Michael Fassbender) and loyal friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) earn a brief reprieve after successfully winning a battle for King Duncan (David Thewlis). On their journey home, they come across three strange women who prophesie that Macbeth will one day become king. Upon revealing the encounter to his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), the couple conspire to seize the throne and in turn, begin a nightmarish descent into violence and madness.
The number one question with any new William Shakespeare adaptation is ‘What’s different?’
Justin Kurzel of Snowtown (2011) fame takes the Scottish play into a form of naturalism that hasn’t really been achieved with Macbeth before. The characters speak their long soliloquies as if it were real film dialogue, a far cry from the louder theatrics of Jon Finch from Roman Polanski’s 1971 version and even Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).
David Thewlis, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), who plays Duncan exhibits an appropriately warm presence, which creates all the more of a shock when he is threatened with violence; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone (2012), continues her seemingly endless fascination into melancholy with Lady Macbeth, occasionally embedding the character with just enough bite; and, of course, at the center is Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave (2013), one of the finest modern actors to tackle the role on screen, and here, he doesn’t disappoint. Fassbender’s Macbeth is uncertain in the mind, but strong in the physical will, constantly seeking action to retain his prized place at the throne.
And just on that motivation, the overall production design appears to be authentic to 11th century Scotland — one can immediately see the appeal of Lady Macbeth’s ambition to claim a luxurious castle, when the Macbeth home almost resembles a barn.
Adding to the atmosphere is the often-elegant cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, Animal Kingdom (2010) — a personal favorite of mine — who appears to use mostly natural lighting, especially with candlelit scenes that are tragically dim to a fault. This simultaneously urges viewers to look further into the image to concentrate upon the characters, but too often just strains the eyes. Thankfully, his outdoor scenes, especially the battles that bookend the film, are startling — the latter drenching the atmosphere in blood red smoke.
Kurzel’s commitment to an overall subdued atmosphere forces the audience to investigate the faces of the characters — something that’s normally reserved for front-row theatergoers.
It’s important to note that with Shakespeare presented like this, it’s very much a case of knowing it and loving it, or not and struggling. In short — this Macbeth adaptation can be dry at times, thus it’s probably not the best introduction to the material, even if it’s an excellent Macbeth picture. For fans, this is an easy recommend, but for newcomers perhaps, it may be more useful to engage with the play before tackling the film.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
Macbeth is released through Transmission Films Australia