Film Review: Macbeth (CTC, UK/FRA/USA, 2015)

There have been plenty of adaptations of the Shakespeare play but this one from Australian director Justin Kurzel is a powerfully intense and brutal take on the tale of the Scottish warrior. This interpretation takes the baseline story of Macbeth and sets it in a dramatic re-imagining of ancient war-times in the Scottish highlands.

After a long battle Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), Thane of Glanis and loyal general to King Duncan (David Thewlis) has finally defeated Macdonwald (Hilton McRae) a traitor to the throne and leader of rebel forces. As they prepare to leave the battlefield Macbeth and his fellow soldier Banquo (Paddy Considine) happen upon three women and a young girl scavenging amongst the dead soldiers. The women foretell of Macbeth gaining the title Thane of Cawdor and becoming King of Scotland, while Banquo will become father to future kings. Neither think much of what’s said until they receive word that the original titleholder for Thane of Cawdor has been killed for treachery against the crown and that Macbeth has been bestowed the new honour.

Back in Inverness, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) is grieving the loss of their only child and receives word from her husband who has been away at war about the prophecy and that the King will be celebrating the battle victory at their home. She hatches an assassination plan and coerces Macbeth into the deed, but once Duncan is killed Macbeth is caught by Duncan’s son and heir to the throne Malcolm (Jack Reynor) who flees in fear, leaving Macbeth to ascend unchallenged.

But Macbeth’s taking of the throne comes at a price, as his sanity crumbles and he descends into tyranny, the return of Malcolm with an army to claim back his rightful throne brings Macbeth’s rule and madness to an end.

Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Assassin’s Creed) and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, True Detective) along with the screenplay adapted by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso have brought to the screen an intense depiction of medieval times, the brutality of war and the destruction of the mind from ego. The opening scenes feature long and drawn out shots of the battle sequences in slow motion, with blood and gore and violent fights. Then to add to the drama is all the political tension and upheaval as Macbeth vies for, then takes the throne only to descend into madness and tyranny.

Then of course there’s Lady Macbeth who is really the instigator of the assassination attempt, and her motives are fuelled by a mixture of greed and grief. What is clear is the manipulation that is going on, from Lady Macbeth convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan. From Macbeth convincing Banquo that the prophecy is real. To Macbeth manipulating members of his court to kill Banquo and also Macduff’s wife and children. It almost feels like Game of Thrones with the amount of death going on but minus the fantasy element.

Some musical scores tend to just sit comfortably in the background but the music provided by Justin’s brother Jed Kurzel (Slow West, The Babadook) is ethereal, creepy and becomes integral to the film and its atmosphere. It’s almost like the fog and dreary moors and rolling mountains are echoing with the strings and horns that rise and fall over the course of the film and marry up beautifully with the wilds of Scotland. It shapes the mood and tone of the film which to be perfectly frank is predominantly dark and foreboding. To add to the production values we have a stunning costuming and makeup department and Macbeth’s battle makeup is a far more dirty and worn Braveheart. As well as having a large portion of the film shot outdoors to utilise the sparse and tree-less Scottish wild landscape to add to the realism.

This film is almost entirely owned and consumed by the performances of our two leads, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. I had my initial reservations about Cotillard, but she manages to encapsulate a women driven by greed, grief and frustration. Her French-tinged Scottish imbues her with a feeling of possibly being an immigrant, stuck in a shoddy life she’d rather aspire to rise above and herein lies her covetous motive to move up in the world by coercing her husband into murdering King Duncan. And it’s her final onscreen scene where she weeps for the loss of her child and the cruel deeds she’s been a part of that you truly see her come full circle emotionally. Fassbender is mesmerising, particularly when we’re immersed in his rugged and weathered face. Even though sometimes his grasp of the verse seems garbled and occasionally muffly he can still be captivating and a lot of that comes from his body language and performance. The scene where he’s hallucinating seeing the ghost of Banquo at the feast was gripping for all the right reasons and it makes you almost feel his madness descending upon him like a cloud.

It has been a while since we’ve seen a Shakespeare adaptation that takes the text and transforms it into a depiction that feels real and is utterly brutal with its portrayal. It incorporates present-day real world issues like post-traumatic stress disorder into medieval times and our two leads really carry so much of the weight of this film with their performances. Kurzel’s Macbeth is spine-tingling and chillingly cold and ruthless and in this game of thrones, the ultimate price for the crown is death.

Running Time: 113 minutes

Macbeth will screen in Australian cinemas from 1 October 2015 through Transmission Films


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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.

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