Film Review | Macbeth

William Shakespeare's short and bloody play gets another big screen treatment courtesy of up-and-coming Australian director Justin Kurzel. But is this both gritty and stylised war thriller starring Michael Fassbender really as exceptional as it looks? 

Love crime: Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender score the roles of a lifetime in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic – and violent – tragedy
Love crime: Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender score the roles of a lifetime in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic – and violent – tragedy

William Shakespeare wrote some violent stuff. The fact that one of his shortest and ostensibly more straightforward of plays, Macbeth, is one of their number – thus guaranteeing its enduring popularity – make this strand in his illustrious output plain.

My own little brother was encouraged to study it in secondary school – a well-annotated and tattered copy is stilly lying somewhere around the house – and it’s both a relief and a shame that teenage boys are often left too puzzled by the twisting Elizabethan language to notice the bloodshed being subconsciously drilled into their collective subconscious.

Neither is the Bard’s story of an ambitious and henpecked king spurned to slaughter his most brutal – the body count and attendant savagery of a, say, Titus Andronicus (which was made into a memorably colourful film by Julie Taymor and starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead role) rivals any of the recent ‘torture porn’ horror films of the Saw variety in its wince-inducing displays of vindictive cruelty.

This all makes sense – Shakespeare’s work is often flagged up as an example of how great art reminds us that we share a common humanity that stretches back to the ages, and that commonality also has to account for the darker tendencies of our psyche.

And so we’re back with another take on ‘the Scottish play’ – with period drama violence to satisfy the Game of Thrones generation. Right before hopping along to Malta to join director Justin Kurzel on Assassin’s Creed, Michael Fassbender – Marion Cotillard too, though she wasn’t filming on the island itself – took on the iconic role of the doomed Macbeth in this gritty crowd-pleaser that however cleaves a bit too close to the surface, and perhaps even signals a bit of Fassbender-fatigue.

In what is the only real shift from the original play, Kurzel’s film opens with brilliant military leader Macbeth (Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Cotillard) mourning the loss of their first child.

Macbeth, however, wastes no time in getting back to what he does best, and secures a swift victory for his king, Duncan (David Thewlis). Soon after the battle, three ‘Weird Sisters’ (i.e., witches) approach Macbeth and his comrade Banquo (Paddy Considine) claiming that Macbeth is poised to be promoted as the Thane of Cawdor and future king, and that Banqo will live to be ‘the father of kings’.


Back home, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to accelerate the prophecy by committing the unthinkable – assassinating the king in his sleep. This brutal, cowardly act secures Macbeth’s ascent. But the paranoia that dogs him thereafter only leads to a domino effect of more killing.

Up-and-coming Aussie director Kurzel continues to build a solid CV with this wartime thriller – that’s what Macbeth boils down to, at the end of the day – and he emerges with top marks, especially if we’re to consider adapting Shakespeare as a rite-of-passage of sorts. He deserves kudos for assembling a great team, too.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw gets the most out of the on-location shoot at the hauntingly beautiful Scottish highlands – a no-brainer choice, but no less diminished for it – with costuming and production design (courtesy of Jacqueline Durran and Fiona Crombie, respectively) also pulling double-duty to create a grimy, chiaroscuro world that brings Shakespeare’s text front-and-centre.

Cotillard is also to be commended for a subtle performance that could easily have descended into showiness. Lady Macbeth is an object of sublime horror in her successful manipulation of the lead character, but Cotillard is canny in portraying her recoil as her husband descends deeper and deeper into the hole she’s admittedly helped to dig. “I’ve created a monster,” dawns on her, but it dawns on her too late.

But there’s no such restraint on Fassbender’s part, which is the biggest chink in the film’s – mud-soaked – armour. Frankly, I think we’re in danger of reaching Fassbender fatigue (Fasstigue?). There’s no doubt that the prolific Irish-German performer deserves all the work he’s been getting, but a sense of complacency has crept in.

There’s very little that’s idiosyncratic or genuine about his take on the short-lived monarch. His moments of violent anger feel like a slightly toned-down version of his psychotic turn in 12 Years a Slave, and in his dead-eyed surliness as the inevitable approaches, he ticks off nearly every cliché note from the ‘Descent into Madness’ playbook.

As Macduff, Sean Harris bests his on-screen opponent even dramatically. It’s a great piece of casting, since the sharp-featured and gimlet eyed actor is often a logical shoo-in for depraved villains, he’s given the chance to surprise us with his heroism and compassion here.

Though the proceedings are absorbing enough, Kurzel is no Polanski or Kurosawa: he does very little but illustrate Shakespeare’s play in a way that’s palatable for today’s audiences, rather than offer unique insights into the age-old text.

His overall approach also leaves much to be desired: by turn at attempt at ‘realism’, it tends to abrupt shifts towards total stylization – the comic-booky red wash of the battle sequences in particular – that just comes across as a cheap way of making us stand to attention.

Shakespeare is certainly pliable to adaptation. But his dramas, though packed with relatable human intrigue and thrilling set pieces, require an equally masterful touch when they’re being adapted to other media. Kurzel comes frustratingly close to the brink, but never quite takes the leap. 

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