Macbeth Review - Shakespeare Has Never Been This Cinematic

The Bard meets Game Of Thrones in the definitive movie of The Scottish Play.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜…˜…˜… Macbeth is at war with itself. Not in the way that the title character is racked with guilt over the horrific actions he's committed to climb to the top, but in that it quite literally is two cinematic ideologies clashing. On the one hand it's a rigid translation of Shakespeare's most famous play. The original prose is maintained, delivered in thick Scottish accents of ranging dialect against a harsh highland landscape with thick, low hanging clouds and steep, unforgiving rock faces. A regional-inflected score drones constantly in the background and everything, from the clothing to the hairstyles, is authentic of 11th Century Scotland. If the Bard was shown the film, he would, after gawping at the whole "moving picture" thing, no doubt give it two thumbs up (or whatever the Elizabethan equivalent was). On the other, this is an adaptation that hasn't been afraid to take risks. In its sub-two hour runtime there's several extended, dialogue-free sequences that expand upon the events of the story, while the script itself has been readjusted to fit a traditional three-act structure. Beyond that though, several key moments have been altered to the point they now come with an alternate meaning: we open at the funeral of the Macbeth's previously unheard-of daughter; the pair become so enraptured while plotting Duncan's death they start having sex; the new King goes veritably insane the moment the crown is placed, rather than increasingly and overwhelmingly remorseful.
The biggest divergence is at the core of the narrative; the inferred meaning behind Macbeth's prophesied rise from Thane to King. The standard reading of Shakespeare's play - the dangers of desiring power - is replaced with a more internalised one. As Michael Fassbender himself has said, his Macbeth is a PTSD sufferer, haunted by the effects of the intense opening battle, realised here in razor-sharp slow-mo, as much as his lust for political strength or guilt over killing his king. This is a different Macbeth to any version before it, but not for the sake of brutish modernisation or desperate reimagining. Everything has been done with the singular goal of making a work intrinsically rooted to the stage work in a medium that wasn't created until three centuries after it was first written. I can't call Justin Kurzel's version the definite take in general on The Scottish Play, because to do so nullifies all the unique decisions he's made, but it is certainly the most engaging, cinematic version of The Scottish Play.
And cinematic really is the word. As if the altered screenplay (which took three people to parse down) and introductions of sequences that thrill as much visually as they do semantically didn't clue you in, Kurzel's produced something that makes the draughty, dimly-lit castles of Olivier and the RSC-style sets of Branagh painfully antiquated. Nowhere is this more clear than in its leads. Neither Michael Fassbender or Marion Cotillard have ever played the Macbeths on stage (once upon a time tantamount to sacrilege), nor did they have to. Contrary to the vibrant, kinetic imagery elsewhere, their performances are incredibly restrained, which is further befitting of this being down-and-gritty cinema rather than high theatrics; the standout moment of Cotillard's performance, and pretty much of the whole film, is the no-frills reworking of the famed sleepwalking scene, which takes place in one, static close-up long take of Lady Macbeth's mental breakdown. Fassbender, likewise, delivers the many soliloquies with an subtle eye towards how they would fit into the real world, taking the internal monologues and presenting them as the vocalised musings of a madman. I first saw Macbeth in Cannes back in May and, while I found it a powerful, nuanced watch then, seeing it again as it reaches general release reveals only more depth, more ingenuity and, if my initial prediction of it inspiring imitators comes to pass (surely dependent on box office), more ground-breaking potential as well. It is both a faithful recreation and daring re-reading of the source, and ranks as one of the greatest Shakespeare movies ever made.
Macbeth is in UK cinemas now and will be released in US cinemas on 4th December.

Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.