A heavy gloom
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and one of his most cleanly diagrammatic plays, which makes it a natural fit for cinematic adaptations. Movie versions have been produced since the silent era, with the “Scottish play” adapted and updated by auteurs like Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa, with the title role played by actors such as Orson Welles and Sam Worthington. It’s been reimagined as a samurai film and a gangster film and a black comedy; the 2001 movie Scotland, PA even moved the action from the foggy moors of Scotland to a fast-food restaurant in 1970s Pennsylvania.
Now director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders, the upcoming Assassin’s Creed) takes his stab at this story of the regicidal Scottish Thane and his aiding and abetting wife. The adaptation is fairly straight, with a lot of the language left intact, but screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso still take some interesting chances—Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a battle-scarred soldier disintegrating from PTSD, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) is less hysterical than depressed, the three witches might be war refugees—while Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw strive to balance heavily stylized visuals with a heavily intimate tone.
Mostly, it’s just heavy. There’s a lot to like on a conceptual level, but the execution is monotonous, like Zack Snyder without the comic book zeal. The film even opens with a splashy, slo-mo battle sequence that plays like an excerpt from 300, as the warlord Macbeth slashes through the armies of the traitor Macdonwald against an omnipresent background of CGI smear. Backed by his brother Jed Kurzel’s overbearing score, the director approaches every single scene with the same one-note intensity, and his overwrought visual style all but strangles a fine lead performance from Fassbender.
Whether in 12 Years or Slave and Shame or the X-Men films, Fassbender is at his best when tightening the gap between control and madness, and his Macbeth perpetually teeters on that knife’s edge (almost literally, in one scene). Cotillard gets stuck playing a high-concept, low-energy Lady Macbeth, so she’s largely wasted here, but she rallies late with a withering monologue that becomes one of the film’s high points. The supporting cast is rounded out with familiar faces such as Paddy Considine and Sean Harris, all growling in a diversity of burrs from underneath thick, mud-caked beards.
The film’s fire-eyed intensity works for a while, and there are always interesting ideas peeking through the gloom. Rather than bestowing the Macbeth family with its traditional castle in Inverness, for example, the film makes them tent people, Bedouins of the Scottish Islands. That’s an interesting divergence, but like so much of Macbeth, it’s just an underdeveloped concept swimming against the tide of Kurzel’s stilted storytelling and dreary visuals. The interminable finale kills a lot of the goodwill built up by Fassbender’s performance, as Kurzel attempts to tap emotional wells he never dug while bathing every image in a Cheetos-like orange. Out, damned Cheez-It! Out, I say!