Brooding, dense, and consistently magnificent to an almost self-defeating degree, Justin Kurzel‘s “Macbeth” is a bloody, muddy, mighty adaptation of one of Shakespeare‘s mightiest plays. Kurzel, whose only previous film, the excellent but confined “Snowtown” gave us no real idea that he was capable of such tectonic gravitas, does not offer a reinterpretation of the text so much as a head-first plunge into its depths, dredging up whole chunks of Shakespeare’s verse and raising them aloft like he’s ripping the beating heart from a mastodon. The words are honored almost as written, but the images, which must surely see “True Detective” cinematographer Adam Arkapaw come barreling into the awards race, are where Kurzel tells the story, and are where he makes his most significant and inventive decisions.
Aided by intensely committed performances from a uniformly brilliant cast, all fielding Scottish accents, Kurzel’s genius is to be able to find clean lines of dramatic connection and motivation within the existing text and then to interpret those imaginatively, without becoming simplistic and without compromise. So anyone hoping for a kind of Cliff’s Notes “Macbeth” (starring Magneto!) will be disappointed: Kurzel adds, he does not subtract — he layers rather than streamlines. The final film is, if anything, the heaviest, doomiest, and darkest version of “Macbeth” we’ve yet seen. And also the best.
Imagining eleventh century Scotland as a semi-mythical kingdom of blood-red skies and marsh and moor, the film begins and ends with children. The first scene finds Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) setting their dead child on a pyre, a curious moment of horror and grief that suggests a gaping, desperately unjust absence in their lives, into which all the bad humors of ambition, greed, and envy can pour. It sets the tone for tragedy to come, and introduces the motif of children and fire that Kurzel returns to several times throughout, most strikingly at the very end. Soon after we are in the first of the film’s remarkable battle scenes, all smoke and slaughter and slow motion. Again, the shocking youth of Macbeth’s soldiers is underlined, and the focus on one boy, and Macbeth’s hollow reaction to his death, suggests that this is a man whose once-great heart has been so progressively wounded that it is now hard, a thickened mass of scar tissue. It helps us understand the central quandary of all “Macbeth” interpretations: why does a good man go bad? Kurzel’s layered approach, and Fassbender’s haunted and ultimately unhinged performance (the tiny, deranged smile when he says, “Honor and grace are dead”), invest the character with a self-aware sorrow he is often not accorded.
Tracking the opposite trajectory, Lady Macbeth starts off an insidious, serpentine manipulator (having her encourage Macbeth to murder while in the act of sex is an inspired riff on the indivisibility of sex and death that also injects a perverse, twisted eroticism into what is usually a fairly sexless play). This is of course the fun part of the role to play, but if anything, Cotillard becomes more impressive as Lady Macbeth begins to recoil from the great evil she has, at least partially, midwifed into being. The simplicity with which Kurzel stages her great “To bed” monologue, which includes my personal favorite line of the whole play (“Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”), indicates he absolutely knows what a great thing he has in her performance. He simply remains on her face, in close up, as she cycles through every one of that remarkable speech’s colors: this is perhaps the best single performance moment I’ve seen in Cannes.
Elsewhere, the rest of the cast is outstanding, especially Sean Harris as Macduff, who has a scene on a hillside in which you essentially watch a man transform into an angel of vengeance. Jack Reynor brings a simple nobility to Malcolm, and Paddy Considine‘s Banquo is immaculate and affecting, which, it should be noted, is rare in this film which favors psychological clarity over emotional connection to any of its characters. That in itself is not a criticism so much as an observation: “Macbeth” is too busy setting your mind whirring and miring you in a mood of portent and paranoia to have much truck with your heart.
But if there is one reservation to express about the film, it is that the portentous mood remains consistently the same from the very beginning through to the (stunning) final shot. The play inherently has an odd dramatic structure, but Kurzel has adapted it in such a layered way (often speeches are cross cut with the future events they describe, which is an efficient way to cover more ground) that it feels like he wants to invest every moment we are left with with equal, massive significance. And so the film never undergoes any dramatic crescendos or diminuendos, instead each scene, each new exchange, feels saturated to overflow with importance, with no higher or lower register to kick into. It’s an impression enhanced by Jed Kurzel‘s score, which uses washes of strings and monotone drones throughout but rarely dallies with melody, and by the slight overreliance on extreme slow motion, especially in the battle scenes, that concertinas out quick moments into long ones and invests glances with the weight and power of gazes. “Macbeth” is a tremendous bellow of a film, but it could do with drawing breath now and again.
Nonetheless, this is remarkable movie, a scorched-earth rendering of a classic story that achieves importance without tipping into self-importance. Indeed, the scope of Kurzel’s ambition for his sophomore film almost rivals that of his title character. But perhaps he heeded the advice of the second witch better than the mad King could: his “Macbeth” is “bloody, bold, and resolute,” displaying a directorial confidence that is breathtaking and a peerless intelligence in interpretation (the staging of the Birnam Woods sequence is particularly inspired). In Kurzel’s “Macbeth,” the beautiful ferocity and complexity of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is reborn, forged in iron, blood, and fire. [A-]