Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotilliard, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: October 2nd
The ‘X was born to play Y’ cliché is pretty well-worn but there are times when you find yourself with little choice but to lean right into it. In the case of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, practically everyone seems tailor-made for their famous roles, not least the leading pair of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Both disappear into splintered characters with almost troubling ease and manage to bring fresh nuance to iconic skin. You should know the story by now. If not, it goes a little something like; misplaced ambition, supernatural happenings, bloody realisation, violent occupation, tragic comeuppance, The End. Sorry if I spoiled one of the oldest and most influential stories of all time.
Kurzel brings an impressive amount of restraint to proceedings. His battle sequences are tight and the bloodshed is earned while he avoids excess on several occasions where others may have been tempted to ramp up the carnage. Cotillard’s take on Lady Macbeth is mesmerising as she spirals hopelessly from callous devil-on-the-shoulder agency to terrified regret. Her glove-like fitting extends to supporting roles – David Thewlis brings gravitas as the doomed King Duncan, Paddy Considine wears wounded pride like few others as the noble Banquo and the superb Sean Harris imbues Macduff with the ferocity of a wounded animal – and director as Kurzel nails details tiny and titanic.
The character of Macbeth is a blunted instrument of death, his soul shattered by blind greed and an instantaneous failure to fit the robes he so messily stole. Where some productions present this too literally with oversized garments, Fassbender’s lost usurper sports a sickly pallor, his eyes fixed, darting and sinking all at once. His fingernails are caked with dirt, his smiles rare and desperate. By the time the vicious power play crumbles, you find a little sympathy despite the horrors committed in his name and by his hand. As one unfortunate victim of Macbeth’s paranoid scorched-earth policy howls before his most gruesome act, this was once an honourable man. Through Fassbender’s conviction, you believe it.
That moment marks a notable deviation on the part of Kurzel’s credited scribes; Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie, Todd Louiso and, er, William Shakespeare. Part of the fun with Shakespeare adaptations is the question of interpretation. Here, Kurzel mostly stays the course but his occasional tweaks are supremely confident. A couple of characters – including the useless Donalbain – are left on the cutting room floor. Soliloquies are joined by silent partners, some of them wraith-like. The weird sisters are no pantomime villains, rather unsmiling, unflinching cogs in a most nightmarish machine. Or are they even present at all? Ambiguity plays a welcome part.
Kurzel even outdoes Roman Polanski’s ‘to be continued’ conclusion with a brilliant, breathless coda. Before that, the director brings Birnam Wood to Dunsinane in truly spectacular fashion as a blood red sky descends and Hell itself threatens to swallow this vicious story and all its pieces whole. Shakespeare has always deserved vivacity. Here, he is honoured accordingly.