Movie Review: “Macbeth”

Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis
Justin Kurzel

Some lucky high school kids are going to watch director Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” during class someday. If you find William Shakespeare’s language difficult to interpret, Kurzel helps you wash it down with some stunningly nightmarish imagery, stirring performances and a surprising amount of levity.

Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a battered and scarred soldier. A thane of Scotland, he hears of a prophecy from three witches that he will one day rule his land as its king. The character is haunted by the start of the film, after he and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) lose a child, but his madness grows and grows over the course of the story. At the insistence of his domineering yet loving wife, he murders the King of Scotland, taking over the throne.

Kurzel and the film’s three screenwriters, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, have turned Shakespeare’s play into a horror movie of sorts. They dive under the skin of the characters, making their pain, past and present, collide in an explosive fashion. It goes without saying that Shakespeare did that as well, but Kurzel and the writers have crafted both a faithful and modern adaptation, although one that’s not too modern.

The battle sequences rely more on mood than hack-and-slash action. This isn’t “300,” for example, as Kurzel is more focused on how the violence affects Macbeth than showing heads flying in the air. There are these fantastic moments in which Kurzel and his DP Adam Arkpaw use slow-motion, not to amp up the action, but to heighten the reaction shots of Macbeth. The battle sequences are impressive on a technical level, but how the director tackles the interior conflicts is just as powerful, if not more so.

Kurzel paints Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their own little haunted world. They’re often alone together, even when they’re in their castle, filled with maids and helpers. As the story goes on, a distance grows between the two, with less intimate shots, less expressions of love, and less scenes with them together. They’re torn apart by their own madness, except Macbeth’s is the more externalized illness.

Michael Fassbender looks like he’s melting in the last half of the film, as if his brain – “full of scorpions is my mind” – is eating away at him, bit by bit. Fassbender doesn’t undergo any major transformation, but he disappears from frame one. Cotillard, by the nature of the character, gives the more internalized performance. It’s a surprisingly, and often painfully, empathetic portrait of Lady Macbeth. She has to keep it all together as her husband falls apart, and Cotillard shows the toll it all takes on Lady Macbeth through the smallest of gestures.

As for the language, it’s a joy to listen to. It never feels like work because Kurzel and the performances make the exchanges intelligible. The camerawork always makes you lean in, to really listen. Following up “The Snowtown Murders,” “Macbeth” solidifies Kurzel as an exceptional talent. His eye for theme, performances and mood is often astonishing. He packs these stunning images with genuine emotion.