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Murderous ‘Macbeth’ Is Perfect Fit for Justin Kurzel (VIDEO)

Murderous 'Macbeth' Is Perfect Fit for Justin Kurzel (VIDEO)

Though you wouldn’t really expect the director of “Snowtown” to adapt “Twelfth Night” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Justin Kurzel is a perfect fit for “Macbeth.” Graduating from Critics’ Week to Cannes competition with Harvey Weinstein behind him, the Australian also segues comfortably from real-life serial killers to one of Shakespeare’s most notorious head cases. This is just the intelligent and intense sophomore feature we’d hoped for.

By casting Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the murderous couple unhinged by ambition, Kurzel guarantees a sexy, subtle, mesmerizing centre to his film. What’s surprising is how unusually Scottish the “Scottish Play” has become in his hands, from location work amid fiercely beautiful landscape and torrid weather to the diction; it’s fitting that in a year when Scotland has asserted its strength in British politics, Macbeth has been freed of RP.
The opening scenes establish an approach that combines gritty authenticity with moments of kinetic stylization. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are first glimpsed shrouded in blankets on a blustery mountainside, surrounded by their community and overseeing the burial of a stillborn child – theirs, no doubt, underlining the later feeling that this is a high-achieving couple with their focus painfully diverted from family to political ambition.
The action then switches to a battlefield, where Macbeth and trusty sidekick Banquo (Paddy Considine) lead an outnumbered band that heroically sees off a rebellion against the King. Sporting war paint and battle garb that’s a bit “Braveheart” with Samurai overtones, these warriors launch into slow-motion, hand-to-hand, visceral combat, blood running into mud, which ends as Macbeth dispatches the rebel leader and the hitherto muted screen is saturated in red.
Macbeth’s preparation of a young boy for battle, then tenderly administering to the dead youth in its aftermath, attest to the goodness of the man. But he noticeably retains the battle scars on his face throughout the film: he’s been battered inside as well as out. Barely recovered from the action, his downward spiral – moral and mental – is sealed the moment he and Banquo happen upon the witches.
It’s a thrilling start, evoking a tribal Scotland that’s brutal in its power plays, harsh in its living conditions. The Macbeths themselves live in a tented community, until King Duncan (David Thewlis) arrives and they discuss the merits of upward mobility.

With his short, matted hair and craggy beard, and her hair draped darkly around her elfin face, Fassbender and Cotillard make a captivatingly beautiful and dastardly couple. They also delineate the Macbeths’ shifting marital power dynamic and descent into madness wonderfully well.

The scene in which Lady Macbeth challenges her husband’s manhood in order to push him towards murder manifests here as sexual seduction. At this stage, Cotillard exudes some of the manipulative menace of her two roles for Christopher Nolan, in “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises”; playing Lady Macbeth as French (while the other actors speak with Scottish accents) also sets her apart from the community that she inadvertently destroys from within. But once the initial bloody deed is done, the actress reveals a woman not only succumbing to guilt, but to fear of the monster she’s created.

For his part, Fassbender moves Macbeth from honorable man to indecisive murderer to paranoid lunatic with recourse to little else than his eyes – eyes that contain something of Olivier’s cruelty as the new king protects his stolen crown at any cost.  He’s particularly good at Macbeth’s early crossroads, then the coronation, temples sweating beneath his new crown, and in the trippy scenes that Kurzel has created to show Macbeth’s metamorphosis into a Nero-like madman.

The key supporting cast are excellent. Thewlis makes a likable, vulnerable Duncan, Considine a touching Banquo, believable best friend and fellow soldier, and Sean Harris – so often cast as the villain and losing none of his resistance to being liked – a formidable Macduff, whose anguish and rage at the slaughter of his family is itself frightening. Indeed, this adaptation rams home the cost to families and community of Macbeth’s actions; in that sense it’s very much of a piece with “Snowtown.”

I can’t attest to their accuracy, but the simple attempt at Scottish accents adds to the verisimilitude of the piece and gives it character beyond the stiff conformity of so many Shakespeare adaptations. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that Kurzel felt he could do this; even the maverick Polanski adhered to crisp diction; and while Orson Welles attempted to inflect his film with a Scottish burr, the studio typically eradicated his efforts.

Overall, this is vigorously conceptualized and visualized, with notable work by “Snowtown” cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran (“Anna Karenina”). But there is a downside to Kurzel being so suited to the material. He fails to overcome its built-in flaw: Shakespeare’s other tragedies all feature more light and shade and comic relief than Macbeth, which offers almost no respite from the gloom.

Kurzel’s stylistic flourishes aside, his tone is grimly one-note and therefore becomes wearing. He could have made more of the witches, who are more ordinary than usual. And while Jed Kurzel’s insistent soundtrack creates an admirable sense of unease, as it did in “Snowtown,” its low hum can be dangerously soporific. And so, perhaps unavoidably, this very impressive adaptation falls short of the accessible Shakespeare for which Kurzel and his collaborators may have strived.

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