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Macbeth, the famed Scottish play, one of William Shakespeare’s most famous works, a tragedy about how the pursuit of power corrupts. It is a play that has been adapted numerous times and now, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel has taken on the task of adapting the work of the Bard.
This version of Macbeth sets itself in the 11th Century during a violent civil war which King Duncan (David Thewlis) is losing. However, under Macbeth’s (Michael Fassbender) leadership, with his general Banquo (Paddy Considine), they turn the tide of the war and are rewarded with their defeated foe’s land and titles. After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches who prophecy that Macbeth will become king, and, under Lady Macbeth’s (Marion Cotillard) guidance convince her husband to commit regicide to seize the throne. But when Macbeth becomes king he descends into madness and tyranny.
Macbeth is often considered to be one of Shakespeare’s darkest works and film adaptations have often replicated this on screen. Kurzel and his writing team make their mark by starting the movie with the funeral of the Macbeth’s child and it is this beginning that gives this screen version one of its most distinctive features, presenting more of a backstory to Macbeth and most importantly for Lady Macbeth, who is normally seen as the true villain of the play. Her grief is what drives her influence on Macbeth to seize control and this is the most human version of the character. Cotillard shows off once again why she is such a highly regarded actress with her terrific performance.
Fassbender also shows off his talents in the lead role, giving an intense performance as the corrupted lord, whether it is in the heat of battle, his soliloquies as he contemplates what he is able to do, the acts of violence he commits or his decline into madness – becoming aggressive and paranoid. Fassbender’s Macbeth is a man of violence; a man of war, yet it is when Macbeth commits murder that drives him over the edge with guilt and regret.
Macbeth boasts a strong supporting cast, having Considine, Thewlis and Sean Harris involved. All three are talented actors, with Thewlis’ version of Duncan being a weak king, but when Macbeth usurps the throne, he brings a dictatorship, wiping out any threat to his leadership, killing men, women and children in cruel ways to achieve this and driving away support by such actions. Even Jack Reynor who was competing with Nicola Peltz for the worst actor in Transformers: Age of Extinction gave a solid performance as Malcolm, having to go on the run and lead the rebellion against Macbeth.
Kurzel takes a very grounded and gritty approach, setting the movie in the cold, wet of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. With cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, the pair showcase the harsh landscapes, using a muted color palette and highlighting the mist and fog, rain and snow and showing the barren mountains, the water soaked marshes and enclosed spaces of a forest. It is a windswept landscape that only the most hardy person could survive. It is a sparsely populated area, Macbeth’s land is just a small rustic village, not a castle or a town, just a minimal collection of wooden buildings, while Duncan and his court have to stay in tents. Visually, the movie is a post-Braveheart take on Macbeth. When the action does take place indoors, Arkapaw uses natural lighting, sunlight through windows during the day and candlelight at night. Kurzel and Arkapaw also use fire as a motif during the movie, having orange glows in the background at night, the funeral pyre at the beginning and a huge orange backdrop during the final battle.
Kurzel is directing the Assassin’s Creed movie, his first foray into action blockbuster filmmaking. On an action standpoint, Kurzel certainly shows that he will be able to handle Medieval style action; the battles scenes were highly bloody affairs, people getting stabbed, hacked and their throats slit. Kurzel combines both the realistic look of movies like Braveheart and Gladiator and the slo-mo approach of 300. Macbeth’s army was a ragtag force of young soldiers and weary veterans, seemingly facing impossible odds, preparing by putting on war paint. The battles are filmed in slo-mo and impressive to look at as men fight each other. The most 300 like moment is when Macbeth sees the witches and stops while the battle continues around him. Macbeth also ends on a strong sword fight as Birnam Wood is burning, making everything around the combatants orange.
The 2015 version of Macbeth is a visual marvel, having striking cinematography, costumes and art direction; it is a great recreation of the early Medieval period. Fassbender and Cotillard excel in their performances and this screen version has the most complex Lady Macbeth ever. Macbeth is a perfectly downbeat representation of the play and a draining experience. However there are better adaptations of the play, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This version does not bring that much new to the text.