When decorating a new build house, one would be well advised to take into account each element of design in an attempt to find homogeneity, conveying the overall intended theme. Now, imagine that modern new build is instead a 17th Century stately home known the world over and visited by millions upon millions over the years. How could one possibly try to reinvigorate such a well known national treasure for a contemporary audience without offending its innate sense of history?
Director Justin Kurzel (an integral part of the recent Australian cinematic renaissance and this only his second feature) reopens his Macbeth Hall with walls adorned in rain-swept, war-torn, antagonistic panoramas of Scottish Highlands, furnished in an old-fashioned rugged realism and at each end of the grand antique dining table are seated the human embodiment of his theme, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cottilard, as Macbeth and his Lady. Begin the fall from grace…
The decision to have the cast adopt Scottish accents detracts little from the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s emotional core, notably Cottilard’s authenticity is never questioned as she delivers a hauntingly chilled Lady Macbeth. Hers is the chiaroscuro which Fassbender’s Macbeth perhaps lacks in places. However, not every word is always heard, not every complex nuance of the source material’s iambic pentameter can be discerned, but it’s a powerful and soaring testament that over four hundred years later Shakespeare’s philosophic and tonal genius can still resonate through a motion picture made in 2015.
And ‘tone’ is very much the word that engulfs each and every minute of the 112 duration here; solidifying the sadness, grounding the guilt and ultimately deepening the despair, made palpable, of our titular anti-hero. This emphatic and inescapably dark tone makes Kurzel’s incarnation of Macbeth hard to access at times, as there’s really nowhere else to go apart from the intensely stylised darkness. Although that limits the film to only operate within that one area then there’s nothing inherently wrong in that. Do what you want to do and do it well. This is certainly done well, with stunning visuals maintained from the first to the very final frame; rich, dark, erotic colours and beautifully captured slow-motion allowing the chaos of Macbeth’s mind time to ferment and engulf.
Sex/gender roles feel particularly relevant for a modern audience with Lady Macbeth questioning her husband’s manhood on a couple of occasions as the manipulative motivation for coercing him to do what must be done. And, again, when Macduff is told his entire family have just been murdered and breaks down, he is counselled by Malcolm to face it like a man but he replies, ‘I will but I’ll also feel it as a man’. There is a nice contrast in male gender roles there, highlighted in 1606 by Shakespeare: to kill one must be a man but to cry one must also be a man.
The moral message is clear: what’s done can’t be undone. The unstoppable power-hungry ambition of Macbeth is an obvious lesson from which to learn: don’t listen to weird women in the fog. Or, be careful what you wish for. The clichéd platitudes could roll on forever but that doesn’t diminish the power of Shakespeare’s point: achieving anything at the expense of anyone else can only bring bad things to those that achieved them and the world within which they reside or, worse, that they govern. A message still not heeded today…
A certain theatrical feel has been maintained throughout – perhaps because of the director’s proximity to the Scottish play, which his wife, actress Essie Davis, starred in before he took on the project – with the soliloquies in particular feeling nicely innovative. The infamous, ‘Is this a dagger I see before me’ conjures a vision of a fallen comrade offering Macbeth the weapon that will seal his fate. Likewise, Lady Macbeth encounters an apparition of their dead daughter to focus her attentions on when delivering one of her key speeches. This calls back to an interesting prologue that Kurzel and co. added to the text, that of the Macbeth’s daughter’s unexplained funeral at the very outset of the film. Perhaps in an attempt to contextualise their otherwise blindly selfish and greedy machinations; they substitute their grief for insatiable ambition. Power becomes their child, that which they can share and will keep them together.
Sean Harris is a worthy Macduff, silent for the most part but ultimately serving as justice and the closest thing to a hero on offer. Paddy Considine lends pathos and gravitas, as one would expect, to his limited Banquo, Macbeth’s friend and battle-wearied companion, bringing the straw-that-broke-the-camels-back moment for our protagonist’s mental demise into shattered insanity.
Powerful, raw and visually arresting, this is a dark and menacing Macbeth but then what else would you expect from Kurzel (just watch his previous feature Snowtown). The only potential criticism being the constant and unflinching tone but then you just need look at the source material and realise this is a modern imagining of a classic tragic play with integrity and great vision at its heart. Enjoyable it may not be but its message is clear and powerfully realised in such a way to make it still resonant today. An achievement worth considerable praise. Macbeth is reopened, go and visit.