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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: Macbeth (2015)

* * *

Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Like so many of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth has been brought to the screen so many times - most famously by Orson Welles in 1948, Akira Kurosawa in 1957 (as Throne of Blood), and Roman Polanski in 1971; shockingly neither Laurence Olivier nor Kenneth Branagh ever did a screen version - that it's difficult to image how anyone could have a fresh interpretation to offer. Justin Kurzel's Macbeth is, generally speaking, a pretty faithful adaptation, telling a story that most will know in broad strokes even if they've never read the play, not deviating too wildly from the original text (though this version amps up the violence). Kurzel's version doesn't offer any new insights into the psychology of its protagonist, but it succeeds thanks in large part to a fascinating performance by Michael Fassbender in the lead - though when a film is this visually bold, the real star is the cinematographer (in this case, Adam Arkapaw).

Macbeth opens with Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), grieving the death of their child before Macbeth heads out to lead troops loyal to King Duncan (David Thewlis) into battle. Emerging victorious in the vicious battle which sees heavy losses, Macbeth and his lieutenant, Banquo (Paddy Considine) are approached by three women who foretell that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and then King, while Banquo will have a line of Kings descend from him. When word of Macbeth's victory reaches Duncan, he does indeed name him Thane of Cawdor, stripping the title from the traitorous previous holder, and then the King and his retinue set out to visit Macbeth's village. Informed of the prophesy, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to kill the King, facilitating the deed by drugging the King's servants. Despite his initial reluctance, Macbeth follows through with the plan and brutally stabs Duncan to death, resulting in Duncan's son, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), fleeing out of fear that he will be blamed for the murder. When morning comes and Duncan's body is discovered by Macduff (Sean Harris), Macbeth is named King of Scotland, seemingly fulfilling his destiny.

With the crown on his head, however, Macbeth begins to come undone. The murder was ultimately for nothing, he tells his wife, because while he is King now, all he's really done is secure the throne for Banquo's line. Frustrated and sensing that Banquo is suspicious of his involvement in Duncan's murder, Macbeth sends out three assassins, but while they succeed in murdering Banquo, they are unable to follow through on killing his son, Fleance, as well. When the assassins return in time for a feast at which all the nobility is present and inform Macbeth that they only partially succeeded in their task, he comes completely unmoored. Haunted by Banquo's ghost, Macbeth begins to alienate those around him, particularly Macduff, who walks out of the banquet in defiance of Macbeth's orders. When Macbeth has a second meeting with the weird sisters, who warn him about Macduff, he receives another prophesy which leaves him believing that he's invincible. Driven mad by power, guilt, and fear, Macbeth's increasingly tyrannical nature turns everyone against him, setting the stage for a new battle and the return of the exiled Malcolm.

Although the film presents a somewhat stripped down aesthetic at the production level, its characters outfitted simply, from the leather armor worn into battle, to the unadorned clothes worn elsewhere (even after Macbeth takes the throne, neither her nor his Queen are dressed particularly ostentatiously), and the art direction that favors very basic habitations; it nevertheless manages to be an often visually captiving film. Favoring filters that sometimes leave the images awash in green or blue or red, Macbeth is a film that chooses be at its most adventurous in terms of its cinematography. I admit to feeling a bit of trepidation when the opening battle scene got started because it looked like the film was going to be leaning on the "slow motion-fast motion" strategy for action scenes that has been so overused in the past decade, but Kurzel and Arkapaw are able to manipulate the effect to instead give the images a dreamy, sometimes painterly quality that works well with the supernatural elements of the narrative. Above all else, Macbeth is a film that is always interesting to look at with individual images that are quite stunning.

As Macbeth, Fassbender, one of the most consistently excellent actors working today, delivers another great performance. Starting the story as a man who seems to take it for granted that he's a noble and faithful servant of the crown, only to discover how little it takes to push him into becoming corrupted, Fassbender's Macbeth is a man who seems to be slowly decaying from the inside out, his sanity dissolving as quickly as his integrity did. As Lady Macbeth, Cotillard has a few really great scenes (both on her own and opposite Fassbender), but on the whole this take on the character seems more fragile than formidable and, despite the considerable talents of the actress, the character is quite marginalized in this rendition and even rather passive. As a fan of both Fassbender and Cotillard, the prospect of seeing them on screen together was pretty exciting for me going into the film, but though there is a charge to several of their scenes together, the film doesn't really have much interest in exploring the relationship between those characters and instead isolates Macbeth to give the impression that it's him against the world (and fate). Fassbender is great, as I said, and the film itself is a solid, interesting adaptation, but I can't deny that by downplaying the title character's partner in crime, it's also missing a crucial bit of dimension that might have taken it from good to great.

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