Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” is anything but a tale told by an idiot as he brings Shakespeare’s dark fable of ambition, paranoia and madness to the screen full of sound and fury.
With Scotland wracked by civil war, loyal general Macbeth leads the King’s forces in a final, decisive battle against the traitors. With the battle won, Macbeth is confronted by mysterious wyrd sisters who prophesise that Macbeth will inherit great titles and ultimately be crowned King. When the first part of their prophecy proves to be true, Macbeth’s ambition, spurred on by his wife, drives him to ensure the rest of his destiny is realised by murdering the King and taking the throne for himself.
Powerful, visceral and emotionally raw, the story is mostly told against the vast and foreboding landscape of the Scottish Highlands and the wilds of Northumbria interspersed with a few relatively Spartan sets. It’s the lyrical text and the performances which give the film its potency. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are magnificent together as the ambitious and Fassbender, in particular, is mesmerising as he charts MacBeth’s descent into furious, guilt-ridden insanity as the weight of the deeds necessitated by his self-fulfilling prophecy weigh down on him.
While relatively faithful to the text of what was already one of Shakespeare’s shortest works, the script still truncates the play quite noticeably. It makes sure to hit most of the play’s ‘greatest hits’ lines but in its hurry to get through the story often doesn’t give them time and space to breathe before the next scene is upon them. Any of the original play’s comic relief is gone, the character of Donalbain is entirely absent and much of the witches’ dialogue is excised as the supernatural elements are subtly implied rather than overtly acknowledged as magical. The hasty pacing undermines a few key moments of the play such as Malcolm’s decision to flee following the murder of his father and the posthumous appearances by King Duncan (much condensed) and Banquo at the feast when big Mac sits down for a very unhappy meal.
The cinematography is stunning, with the wilds of the Scottish mountains, a brooding mixture of greys, purples, greens and misty whites juxtapose with the smoke and fire of battle, rendered in searing pandemonic hues of orange and red, enriched by a wonderfully evocative score from Jed Kurzel. The brutal, bloody violence both in the battle scenes and the more calculated murders owes more than a tip of the hat to HBO’s all-conquering “Game Of Thrones” but there’s no doubting the play’s the thing here and the spectacle and scenery still take second place to the scintillating performances placed before them.