There are two principle reasons for seeing director Justin Kurzel’s version of Macbeth: Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Both provide excellent interpretations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth respectively in this stylish reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s perennially bloody tale.
I am assuming everyone reading this knows the story of Macbeth, so I won’t bother to recap the premise. However, herewith spoiler warnings if you aren’t familiar with what actors superstitiously term “the Scottish play”.
Kurzel’s take on the material involves a number of frankly rather effective deviations from the text, mostly for the purposes of trying to find the humanity in these notorious villains. For example, the play contains vague allusions to childlessness, so here in an opening scene Macbeth and Lady Macbeth bury their dead child, making the matter explicit. Furthermore, Macbeth is seen to possibly have post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of too many Braveheart style battles, with the enigmatic witches perhaps being a projection of his subconscious. Incidentally, on a visual level this takes its cue not only from Braveheart but also 300 during said battle scenes.
Shakespeare’s timeless theme of the seductive lure of power and resultant paranoia is rendered as effectively as ever, especially in further textual departures such as Macbeth personally flame-grilling those poor Macduff children. Macbeth remains relentlessly bleak, entirely concerned with evil. That the play contributed so many phrases to English vernacular (“one fell swoop”, “what’s done is done” and so forth) feels like a moot point faced with such hideous darkness.
Previous filmmakers including Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa have all put their unique stamp on Macbeth. Kurzel’s achievement is mostly visual, with the final sequence in particular hugely nightmarish and memorable. On the whole, this stark, pared down version really brings home the horribly grim simplicity of the story – essentially manipulation, madness, murder, more murder and yet more murder.
The supporting cast do very well, with the likes of David Thewlis as King Duncan, Sean Harris as Macduff and Paddy Considine as Banquo. Yet it is Fassbender and Cotillard who really dominate, chewing the scenery to within an inch of its life and playing their roles with phenomenal and disturbing conviction. Ultimately Macbeth isn’t a story you go to for laughs, but it is still, even after hundreds of years, a fiercely relevant insight into the evil in the soul of humanity.