Australian director Justin Kurzel rose to notoriety with his first feature Snowtown. Based on the true story of a series of grisly murders, it has more than a little in common with Macbeth. Featured at Cannes this year, this adaptation rings hollow. Kurzel is over-eager on aesthetics, thus brutalising Shakespeare’s text.
Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a Duke of Scotland, enlisted by King Duncan (David Thewlis) to crush a rebellion led by McDonald, Thane of Cawdor. He and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) are mourning the death of their child. In the aftermath of his victory, Macbeth and his ally Banquo (Paddy Considine) stumble on three witches, who prophesise that Macbeth shall one day become King. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth decides to murder the King and take his place. However, soon after their coronation, he and Lady Macbeth descend into madness, as Duncan’s sons and Macduff (Sean Harris), Thane of Fife, prepare to invade.
The initial battle scene, situated in a harsh and dour landscape, showcases this adaptation’s striking settings. Most scenes are shot outside, on the audibly windy highlands, or in tents. Macbeth himself lives not in a castle, but in a small village. Women wear black, hooded in blanket veils. Particular emphasis is given to religion, with churches used as a setting for a number of its key scenes. However, the cinematography often slides into surrealistic effects: battles, for instance, are covered in white mist and flooded by bright orange light; the camera moves around frantically during scenes. There are also continuity issues – the outward appearance of the King’s castle, for instance, doesn’t match its interior, which is uniformly shot in a cathedral.
However, the prominence given to (not always well executed) aesthetics gets in the way of the film’s text – and of the actors’ performances. The delivery is universally flat, as if the cast were trying to draw as little attention as possible to their dialogue – much of which is either mumbled or recited. Loud, distracting, and over-dramatic music gets in the way of hearing the rest. Kurzel is fond of close-ups and the leads perform several single-shot monologues, their faces filling up the screen (think Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables) – both Fassbender and Cotillard cry in these instances. The direction seems intent on displaying only the beauty of their tortured faces. As a result, the two leads, usually excellent, deliver subdued work. Shakespeare’s lines are not brought to life, but tossed aside. There are a few exceptions, however – Fassbender manages to slip in a few good moments, especially after Macbeth is crowned King. Cotillard might not act her lines well – her Lady Macbeth is at odds with the dialogue in being pitiful and mild, rather than fearsome – but she is remarkably expressive. There is, in addition, an odd disparity among the cast’s accents. Fassbender and Cotillard sound English; the rest have strong Scottish overtones.
Kurzel uses children as an unsubtle motif throughout, reflecting in their actions those of their elders. A group of them play with a crown; Macduff’s children stare at Macbeth accusingly as he is about to commit a horrific act; the witches are accompanied by a young girl and a baby. Fleance, Banquo’s son, is the last to contemplate Macbeth in his untimely fate. It all comes across as a bit heavy-handed, of course referring back to the loss of Macbeth’s own child.
Macbeth is disappointing. It doesn’t work as a Shakespeare adaptation and is too gimmicky to function as an exercise in visual beauty. It’s as if Kurzel fell in love with the idea of shooting a film set in Medieval Scotland and threw in the text as an afterthought. It wastes the talent of its cast, and an excellent play.
Macbeth is playing in cinemas now.