The Official Competition at Cannes closed out on Saturday with “Macbeth,” Australian director Justin Kurzel’s new interpretation of William Shakespeare’s classic tale of murder and tragedy, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It’s been a long time since we had a truly great Shakespearean movie (Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” is probably the last, nearly twenty years ago, depending on your feelings on Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modern-day “Hamlet”), and even longer since there was a great version of this particular play: despite being one of the author’s best-known, it’s generally proven resistant to translation.
But as our review revealed, Kurzel’s film manages both feats: it’s a bold take that, while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, certainly tricks the wheel out with intelligence and visual bravado, and has an engine driven by some furious performances. It’s a very, very different version than ones we’ve seen on screen before, and after our full review, we wanted to dig a little deeper to find out why. Below, you’ll find five reasons that make the 2015 “Macbeth” so exciting and distinctive. Take a look below, and find out for yourself when “Macbeth” hits theaters later in the year. **Spoilers ahead**….
READ MORE: Cannes: New Images From ‘Mecbeth’ Starring Michael Fassbender And Marion Cotillard.
The world it creates
It might be technically period, but Kurzel and his team have created a vision of “Macbeth” that’s more easily compared to Orson Welles’ expressionistic take than to Roman Polanski’s more prosaic one. Indeed, while it retains the original verse (while cutting down significantly, and sensibly), it sometimes feels not so much like a straight adaptation as a meditation on its themes, or a tone poem pushed through a filter of Nick Cave murder ballads and Cormac McCarthy nihilism. It’s a period piece, sure, but Kurzel is admirably unspecific about exactly what period, with barren Dark Ages exteriors punctuated by lone buildings, later Medieval cathedrals or even, during Cotillard’s “out damn spot” monologue, what appears to be a 19th century wooden chapel. Kurzel’s world, brought gorgeously to life by hazy, stunning images by “Top Of The Lake” and “True Detective” cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, is as much “Mad Max: Fury Road” as it is “Braveheart,” evoking not so much an uncivilized world as one that crumbled already. It’s as striking to the ears as it is to the eyes, with the low hum of the sound design, and an ever-present, effectively abrasive score by the director’s brother Jed, proving as important to the nightmarish tone as the film’s look. It’s an expressive, yet rigorous setting, and one that it takes some time to shake.
The importance of children
Any stage director that has tackled “Macbeth” (or indeed, any Shakespeare play as rich as this one) will tell you that it’s not so much about creating a theme as finding which one you want to draw out above the others, and Kurzel finds his in the question of family and children. The play has one of fiction’s most famous openings—the “hubble bubble toil and trouble” scene — but the film boldly moves it back and cuts it down (they’re less witches than soothsayers here, marked by strange cuts that suggest they’re in some kind of sect or cult), instead opening the film with a silent funeral for the Macbeths’ young son—a rather pagan one at that, which clashes intriguingly with the Christianity motif found elsewhere. That they’ve lost a child isn’t an uncommon interpretation (“I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,” she says in Act I, scene vii, though I don’t recall the line recurring in the film), but rarely have the issues of children, or their lack, and legacy been as prominent as they are here. In the opening battle scene, Macbeth and Banquo lead an army made prominently of men who look barely into puberty, and the death of one haunts the title character for the rest of the movie. The children of Banquo and Macduff are given prominent placing, hammering home the childlessness of the new King. Even the film’s conclusion is about legacy, setting up the cycle of violence to continue between Malcolm (Jack Reynor), and Banquo’s son Fleance, predicted by the “witches” to take the throne one day. It’s a remarkably cohesive and rigorous motif, and one that adds a huge amount to the story.
Given how well the stories are known by audiences, it’s tricky for a Shakespeare adaptation to truly surprise, but Kurzel manages the trick here, and in the film’s most pivotal scene. After the infamous “dagger” speech, Macbeth enters the tent of King Duncan (David Thewlis) and, hand over his mouth, brutally stabs him. It’s usually kept off stage in theatrical versions, but otherwise so far so usual. Here, however, Macbeth, splattered with blood, turns to see Duncan’s son Malcolm, distraught and shocked. It’s a move daring enough that I gasped a little, but it makes perfect sense. In part because of it’s Reynor’s performance (returning to “What Richard Did” form after his bland Hollywood debut in “Transformers”). He seems to be an essentially noble figure, but moist-eyed and neck-bearded, he seems out of his depth against the Machiavellian ambition of the usurper, and that he stumbles across the murder itself makes perfect sense of his subsequent flight to England. It also raises the dramatic stakes somewhat — the frame-up of the King’s guards is less a calculated move, and more of a desperate attempt by Macbeth to cover his tracks. It’s not the film’s most notable change, but it’s a hugely effective one.
Another shift that’s even more startling and brutal involves the family of Macduff (Sean Harris), a loyal lieutenant of Duncan who flees to aid Malcolm in his request to regain the throne. In the play, Macbeth orders Macduff’s castle to be captured and everyone in it, most notably Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki, the standout in “The Great Gatsby” who sadly gets only a handful of lines here) and her children, to be slaughtered. Kurzel’s take is more hardcore than that, though: the Macduffs are captured fleeing through the woods, but not immediately dispatched, and you wonder if Kurzel’s actually leaving the carnage off screen. Until the next cut, anyway: we see the entire Macduff tied to stakes, about to be incinerated in front of the King, Queen and their followers, a number that grows increasingly slim after actions like this. It’s a positively shocking addition (not least when we see the charred corpses after), but it serves a purpose beyond just driving home Macbeth’s unhinged tyranny. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth watches the burning with a tear-streaked face, giving unexpected texture to the character, and neatly setting up her final monologue and death scene (and the sheer ferocity of Harris’ performance: the veteran character actor is a standout among the supporting cast, in part because of the moment where he mourns for his family).
More than one director has been undone by the conclusion of the play, and in particular the need that “Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane,” fulfiilling the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth can only be defeated when the nearby forest marches towards his castle. It’s normally achieved by sticking some twigs onto the actors’ costumes, but Kurzel does something truly ingenious here: Macduff and his forces burn the wood down, creating a cloud of smoke and ash that floods towards Macbeth’s castle (Fassbender sells the bit beautifully, rubbing the ash off his hands and repeating the “Birnam wood” line). It’s a clever and entirely cinematic solution, both a smart tactical decision and a strong aesthetic one, and it creates the stunning setting for the final showdown. The film eschews the huge battle scene that would have seemed the obvious step in the post “Gladiator”/“300” era, instead coming down to a mano-e-mano throwdown between Macbeth and Macduff on an empty battlefield against a smoky, red-tinged sky. If Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotillard and co-writer Michael Lesslie can come up with anything even near as striking for their next collaboration, blockbuster “Assassin’s Creed,” we might well have the first great videogame movie on our hands.
“Macbeth” will be released later in 2015.