Film Review: Macbeth (StudioCanal; 2015)

Niall McKenna, Arts & Culture Editor

The latest adaptation of Macbeth by director Justin Kurzel (and writer William Shakespeare) could be one of the finest. Michael Fassbender plays the lead as a Scottish general who, urged by ambition, prophecy and his beloved, commits regicide in order to claim the throne. What follows is a thrilling and beautiful piece of cinema that both honours and augments the original text, and reminds us why adaptations of Shakespeare’s work continue to be made.

Fassbender is joined by Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, dramatically greater than the sum of their parts. Fassbender fully commits to a character who is unable to withstand the fruits of his ambition and who is racing through madness, in all its elements; guilt, paranoia, rage. To see him shuffling disconsolate in his chamber for hours (via time lapse photography), whooping manically and half-naked on the highlands – we can’t help but pity him, hoping somehow he will be absolved and his mind cleansed. Both he and Cotillard address the camera in mesmerising monologues, the full power of their performances hitting us head on. Cotillard’s exhausted soliloquy in the chapel evokes a level of aching sympathy that is compounded by the terrible absence of their child, whose addition to the film (it is not explicit in the text) engenders compassion for a potentially despicable character, a desperate, power-hungry woman who manipulates Macbeth into doing ‘all that may become a man’, no matter the cost. Even if that cost be to Banquo – in his short time on screen Paddy Considine portrays a good friend and a good father, making his appearance at the banquet all the more chilling.

StudioCanal; 2015
StudioCanal; 2015

The tragedy unfolds against a backdrop of incredible landscapes, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw transforming Scotland into an ancient and unforgiving wasteland where man is less at home than the Weird Sisters. They first appear before Macbeth during his battle against Macdonwald, in majestic slow-motion; swords are swung, blood flies and mud is churned in a brutal sequence that is edited in such a way as to be narrated by a character describing the event, to great effect.

Kurzel chooses to stick with the play’s original Elizabethan text but he is not afraid to adapt or cut. The five act structure becomes three, delivering a sharper, shorter but all the more thrilling narrative, to which Kurzel adds his own touches – Birnam Wood moves, but so cleverly as to create an suitably apocalyptic plane on which the climax can take place. In its final moments, Macbeth suggests that the rise and fall of kings (and the violence that ensues) will never end, a suitably dark ending to a fantastic tragedy done justice.

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