From the moment a blue baby is presented as the first image it’s clear this new adaptation of “Macbeth” will be a visual marvel. Even the onscreen text, which informs the audience that the rebel Macdonwald is trying to overthrow King Duncan, arrives with ample panache — the text pulls up to slowly reveal a red blood sunset and a silhouetted figure of our titular hero.
Unlike in Shakespeare’s text, however, we get to see the battle that takes place upon the Scottish bens. Director Justin Kurzel introduces the grave-faced anti-hero, played by Michael Fassbender in a gladiatorial rendition of the man who would be king.
With mud on his face obscuring some of the cuts and bruises, the actor looks like he’s spent a few weeks cage fighting preparing to be the Scotsman. This Macbeth is the kind of alpha male that Kurzel excelled at essaying in his 2010 debut “The Snowtown Murders” — strong, determined and single-minded.
In addition to the depiction of this brutish fighter, two things stand out about the stunning opening battle — the magnificent cinematography by Adam Arkapaw and the cutting of the text into soliloquies, used like voiceover as we see the action plays out. The ensuing narrative technique maintains an elegant air of innovation on par with Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant “Romeo + Juliet.”
Notably, in addition to working on the two great crime movies in Australia’s recent cinema — “Animal Kingdom” and “The Snowtown Murders” — Arkapaw photographed the critically acclaimed television shows “Top of the Lake” and “True Detective.” This television work has most influenced his lensing of “Macbeth,” which includes a fantastic use of mist and fire that creates the atmosphere of a horror film, and candles as prominent as bonfires that light the hills. Throw into the mix three straggly clairvoyants who come from different generations — old, adult, and child — and “Macbeth” develops the ominous atmosphere of “The Wicker Man” more than anything in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The text nicely compliments these compelling images. The soliloquies frequently surface alongside thrilling montages of violent encounters.
The director gives Fassbender plenty of opportunities to convey Macbeth’s developing madness, particularly when he’s running around his huge, minimalist, but rather cold-looking bedroom. Such imaginative moments may be as a result of what he’s seen on the battlefield as much as his more personal acts of treachery.
Ultimately, though, the narrative innovation and stylized images lead the compelling adaptation to fall on its sword. When the battle ends and the story settles down into a tale of reckless ambition involving the relationship between Macbeth and his Lady, the scenes lack substance. Intriguingly, Marion Cotillard plays Lady Macbeth in grieving mother mode, tapping into a longstanding theory among Shakespeare aficionados that the couple had children before the events of the play; this tragedy sets her on a path toward madness.
So Cotillard gives her Lady Macbeth an external anguish from the outset. She also, perhaps wisely, doesn’t try to adopt a Scottish accent, but instead has the neutral tone of a BBC news anchor. There is an intensity to her performance, but one that is driven from inside rather than steeped in her surrounding environment.
The trouble is that by having a strong man and grieving, traumatized woman as the principle couple, Kurzel doesn’t leave room to explain their coupling. It never seems convincing that Macbeth would do anything for his wife, or that she has the capacity to manipulate him. Once it’s clear that their relationship fails to convince, the rest of the narrative wears thin.
As such, it’s hard to feel much investment in the central couple’s fate, creating a dramatic lagoon where there should be a river of emotions. One could argue that the cerebral results match Kurzel’s intentions, but they also hold back the inherent appeal of the material that has lasted for ages.
Oddly credited to three screenwriters, the story regularly meanders, rendering the archaic dialogue in even more bewildering terms. Apart from an excellent performance from David Thewlis as King Duncan, it’s a struggle to feel much engagement with Banquo (Paddy Considine), Macduff or Malcolm. The abridged text simply doesn’t allow for sufficient engagement with any of these supporting characters.
In Kurzel’s defense, the Scottish play seems peculiarly cursed on celluloid — both Orson Welles and Roman Polanski have also struggled to transfer the immediacy and vitality felt on stage to the big screen — and the young filmmaker comes closer than either of them to modernizing its appeal. This particular tale of sound and fury signifies more than nothing, but only just.