This week we had to review a performance of anything for my Shakespeare class. I thought it would be an appropriate time to watch this lovely little film I had been putting off seeing. Check out the review:
Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation of Macbeth is aesthetically visceral, with bold colors, stunning contrasts of isolation and space, and a haunting palpability that only the fogs of Scotland can bring. The tortured performances of Michael Fassbender in the titular role and la belle Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth are both grand and subtle, glaring and hidden. With creative inserts and other uses of inventive filmmaking, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a welcome addition to the modern adaptations of William Shakespeare’s cannon.
Every breath of 11th century Scotland feels tangible. Connotations of the Scottish play bring about darkened stages and a mysticism only present in post-renaissance England’s sensibilities. Kurzel’s decision to shoot the play as if it were Braveheart meets King Arthur (or any open-air story of the era) meets the fervent moments of Requiem for a Dream breaks away from any pre-conceived notions of what Macbeth has been, yet feels utterly to scale in a modern retelling of a Shakespearean play. The stunning contrasts of space and isolation, and isolation within space, mixed with overlays of speech seamlessly assembled from various acts create a simultaneously excessive and minimalist aesthetic designed to steal the viewer’s attention much like Macbeth hath stoleth his crown.
Fassbender’s Macbeth is at first a hardened warrior atop the field of battle, easily drawing the aforementioned comparisons to William Wallace or Arthur of Camelot. But as the play furthers so does his psyche. In his moments of solitude, Fassbender’s Macbeth is a strikingly conflicted soul, grappling with his desires for power. The performance of Fassbender is both nuanced and grand. He is at home in those moments of battle and in direct dialogue with Cotillard or the secondary characters. His soliloquies are nuanced and add value towards the film, even if they are altered (and enhanced) by the stylized way Kurzel displays him (Kurzel persistently shock cuts in the invested moments of Macbeth’s dialogue as a means to heighten narrative tension and also manipulates speed as means to stress reactions to specific staging and character states).
Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is at once subtle and deliberate, perpetually moving and manipulating to get what she wants. On a surface level, amid moments in public, she is stoic and appropriate. Yet that changes in her solitude – much like Macbeth. There is a profound desire in her first images within the church house, surrounded by lit candles with the image of a cross coming through via an opening atop the altar, evoking the sensibility of biblical right within her character. While in those moments Kurzel crafts the Lady Macbeth he requires, it is alone with Fassbender when Cotillard truly synthesizes the woman.
When she speaks her eyes widen and her voice grows dynamic, complete with a breathy growl that draws the audience in as much as it draws in Fassbender’s Macbeth. It is in those moments the two flourish, as they become co-conspirators whose desires are both alluring and reviled.
If any theoretical framework were to be applied to a review of this adaptation, it would easily welcome a psychoanalytic approach. Source material aside, Kurzel implicitly stresses psychological indicators through his filmmaking choices (shock cuts, time manipulation, and isolation).
It is overwhelmingly clear – and apparent from the start, as Kurzel chooses to have the opening images be the burial of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s child – he desired to emphasize the descent of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and allowed for the filmmaking to contrast the (mainly) nuanced performances of both Fassbender and Cotillard.
Finding a flaw in Kurzel’s adaptation is an unnecessary task. It may deviate, or manipulate, too far from the source material for some Shakespearean purists, but it is an account that is genuine by contemporary standards. Pacing may be an issue for a casual viewer, even though it isn’t an unwelcome issue as the long delayed looks emphasize the isolation each character faces.
In terms of cinematography, Macbeth was a welcome surprise. It is a movie of brilliant contrasts in color, lighting, and space that is a wonderful take on the Scottish play. The acting was as strong as expected by the billing – Fassbender and Cotillard were not going to disappoint in either role. Overall, some may feel some of Kurzel’s choices jarring but he crafts an adaptation of a Shakespearean standard that is a solid addition to the modern Shakespearean oeuvre.