Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris
For those very few of you that did not have to read the Scottish play for GCSE English; after an historic victory on the battlefield, Macbeth (Fassbender), a Thane of Scotland receives a prophecy that he will become king of Scotland. Spurred on by his and his wife’s (Cotillard) ambition, he murders the current king, Duncan (David Thewlis). However, once on the throne, Macbeth becomes increasingly consumed with guilt and paranoia.
Bringing Shakespeare to the screen is a mammoth task; with the description all in the dialogue, when it is presented via the visual medium of film the challenge is there to utilise the things films can where the stage or the page cannot, and avoid simply having the play acted out on screen. This task is of course an even bigger one when it is one of the most well-known and read plays of all time and such great directors as Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurasowa have previously had a go at bringing it to the big screen. There is no denying that Justin Kurzel’s film is an adaptation of admirable ambition and intelligence, and it is filled with stunning visuals and a deeply consuming mood and tone. However there is no getting away from the fact what is happening on screen often forms an uneasy and jarring alliance with the bard’s dialogue.
Of course most people would have indeed not only read it at some point, but actually had to study Macbeth, and so are fully aware of all the main plot points, as well as each character’s motivations and inner thoughts. Kurzel seems to be very much aware of this and at time she takes advantage of this as though he shows clear respect for the source material, he strips it down to the bare bones, removing as much as he can to make way his film’s striking visuals to solely tell the story as much as will allow. This allows Kurzel to spend the film’s 113 minute running time focussing on the themes he is trying to examine most deeply while being economical with the narrative and avoiding making the whole thing feel overstuffed.
What Kurzel does not change is the setting of time and place, and he makes the most of the bleak and isolated landscapes of Scotland to enhance the film’s tone and mood. From the opening scene we have our two protagonists mournfully leading the funeral of a young child, and this not only sets the tone, but is the start of a powerful re-occurring theme surrounding the childless couple and Macbeth’s constant paranoia whenever there is the mentioning of children or bloodlines with reference to those around him. It is moments like this when Macbeth is at its most powerful and utterly unforgettable, especially as the narrative progresses the setting just feels like a devastating visual depiction of the protagonist’s personal hell (even in colour). This depiction of the protagonists personal journey and descent into madness does feel incredibly cinematic, fully justifying seeing Macbeth on the big screen.
However, for all the incredible power of the raw visuals and stunning cinematography from Adam Arkapaw, it does feel at times that when there are extended scenes of dialogue even the director feels a little bored. Kurzel resorts to jump-cuts or some dialogue in both diagetic and non-diagetic voice-over, and this is sometimes incredibly effective, but far too often the dialogue feels out of place as it seems clear that Kurzel is struggling to incorporate it into his film. As much as the viewer will often be consumed and swept away by the film’s stunning visual moments (and there are many), Kurzel’s seeming difficulty at incorporating any of the original dialogue into the narrative makes for plenty of scenes that prove a real effort to watch and actually stay interested at what is happening at all.
Performance-wise the two leads are excellent; Fassbender is exceptional as Macbeth, and though there is the occasional wobble in his Scottish accent, he does fully convince as a tyrant descending into madness. Fassbender also shares superb on-screen chemistry with Cotillard and the two make a convincing and sexy couple. Cotillard herself apparently tried to crack a Scottish accent, but just couldn’t, and so goes for non-regional. It is always best in my view to do a non-regional accent then the supposed appropriate accent badly, and she is also excellent as Lady Macbeth, but her character could have done with more individual focus and her inclusion in the film’s final third feels rushed and frustratingly unsatisfying.
The supporting cast all deliver suitably intense performances in terms of body language and expression, but their Scottish accents and in particular their delivery of the dialogue is often less than convincing. I appreciate there is perhaps a difference between delivering Shakespearian dialogue on the screen compared to on the stage, but the unconvincing delivery often only enhances the feeling that the original dialogue is an unwelcome intruder in its own play and it makes for boring viewing at times.
When Kurzel’s Macbeth is allowed to flourish it is a raw, brutal and deeply atmospheric experience that is an intoxicating visual depiction of the madness that develops inside the mind of its protagonist. However, despite getting rid of as much of the original dialogue as he can, Kurzel’s incorporation of what dialogue remains in the narrative is not so well handled, and its delivery is certainly less than convincing at times. It is hard to suggest any kind of solution to this, and Macbeth is certainly far easier to praise than it is to criticise, but it feels like there is a constant conflict between dialogue and mise-en-scène, which certainly hampers the viewing experience.
A stunning and brutal visual depiction of a journey into madness and a personal hell; director Justin Kurzel certainly makes some of the main themes of Macbeth extremely cinematic, but as much this latest big screen version enraptures, the seemingly uneasy inclusion of Shakespearian dialogue often makes for dull and unconvincing viewing too.