The time has shown us that there are two ways of going about a Shakespeare adaptation, and both are sure to scratch some the wrong way. You either have people complaining about adaptations like Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet sticking too close to the source material, or purists crying blasphemy over alterations – sometimes interesting, like Michael Almereyda’s modern adaptation of a filmmaker Hamlet; but usually falling flat like Julie Taymor’s gender-bending The Tempest. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth firmly toes that line, staying faithful to the Bard’s epic while adding a couple more layers to the characters, painting us a brutally realistic vision of the tragedy that is Macbeth. A powerful saga to be experienced, Macbeth is one for everyone, with Michael Fassbender’s and Marion Cotillard’s breathtaking performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth rooting even those not too fond of Shakespeare to their seats.
Macbeth is the tale of its namesake, Thane of Glamis and loyal soldier to Duncan, King of Scotland. Regarded by many to be one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, this drama of the bloody rise to power and the downfall thereafter is based on events that took place in 11th century Scotland. For those who left their high schools far behind, ‘Macbeth’ begins with a prophecy by three witches which alights Macbeth’s ambition, who in turn fuelled by the words of his Lady, sees to its truth by the strangest means. His bloodthirsty pursuit leaves several dead in its wake, from the silver-skinned Duncan lying laced with his golden blood to old, trusting Banquo who remained his comrade till the end, until he meets his poetic close. It is the story of a man led blind by ambition and equivocation, whose mind staggers under the scorpions it has created and is never revived to indulge in the fruits of his villainy, burdened till the very bloody end.
I don’t normally recommend that people read the original before watching the adaptation, but here more than anywhere else, it seems knowing the subtler undertones and the roles of characters would serve to amplify the experience to the fullest. Kurzel’s Macbeth is a 2-hour painting, which exercises restraint in the performances but close to none in the colours, images and wailing soundtrack. Blaring loudly and always in tune with the journey of its titular character, Macbeth is a fierce film replete with powerful imagery and symbolism, the latter sometimes working layers beneath the surface. If this film serves as your introduction to the Bard’s notorious play, then you are sure to miss out on some of the layers and motivations behind characters, as well as the role each plays in the scheme of the story. It is a most haunting and symbolically pregnant vision of the tragedy that Kurzel gives us, with just the right amount of tweaks and additions to make a read worthwhile in appreciating the style and substance of Macbeth. The reason for this is the film choosing to shed most of its light on the Macbeths, compromising some of the secondary characters like Donalbain and the Porter, to gaze deeper into the mind taunted by its own actions. By allowing for the pain and turmoil of his central duo to permeate us while painting enough details into the others, Kurzel succeeds in his balancing act.
The focused and limited limelight of Macbeth places the effectiveness of the film on its two leads. Though very different from previous versions, Fassbender’s Macbeth breathes new life into the character, gilding him with an unhinged roughness that shows brilliantly in the snippets of battle. Having started out as a stage actor, Fassbender’s inherent sense of drama adds to elevating the film into a theatrical experience, dancing to the beats of the director as with the playwright. Kurzel employs devices of the stage like beats and rolls of the drum to build tension and fuel movement, which come to an ominous pause at moments of more significance. In fact, the theatrical environment suits the tale of Macbeth very well, the horns and drums all amplifying the dread that ‘hovers through the fog and filthy air.’ In the midst of and basking in the poisonous air is Marion Cotillard, who channels a stern-eyed and sharp-tongued Lady Macbeth, masterful at whispering the words that ‘screw Macbeth’s courage to the sticking place’ and see the desire turn reality. In stark contrast to Fassbender’s Macbeth, Cotillard remains steady-handed and with steely determination till the third act, where we see the brashness and overconfidence rise in Macbeth as his Lady teeters toward breakdown. In perfectly complementing each other, the two build a devious chemistry that sees them both to downfall, and ultimately carries the film. If nothing more, it increases hope for Assassin’s Creed this year, which shall see the trio of Kurzel, Fassbender and Cotillard together again.
More than anything else, what makes Kurzel’s Macbeth worthy of the Bard’s play is its feel: a living, breathing atmosphere which surrounds and binds every character and set on screen. It is the blending of the vibrant colours of various temperatures and the wailing Gaelic music that creates such an atmosphere of wrong, one which compels you to say ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ here. Kurzel’s Macbeth, unlike adaptations before it, embraces the Scottish nature of the play, distancing itself from the inevitably Elizabethan English setting of most of the Bard’s other plays. This it does by accentuating the Scottish elements – architecture, clothing and religion – in the narrative and infusing the soundtrack with bagpipes and Bodhrans, both unique to the culture of the Gaelic Scottish. A prominent example of this is present early on in the film where the Macbeths perform the funeral rites for their late child at the pyre, which serves not only this purpose but also to bring to the surface the more emotional layers of Macbeth, reduced to subtext in the play. Macbeth is a film of spectacle, not merely relishing in physical scale but using it to engrave the psycho-emotional weight of the moments in our minds.
In Greek literature, ‘hamartia’ is a literary device used to signify the fatal flaw of the protagonist that ultimately sees the downfall of his character. In this stride, Macbeth is a tale warning against ambition and desire that easily engulf human minds, for that was the hamartia of Macbeth. Justin Kurzel understands the essence behind this hamartia, and therefore paints every image on screen in the shades of desire and the eyes of Macbeth with its obvious enchantment. This most praiseworthy direction reaches an almighty crescendo during two scenes of bloody death: of Duncan in his chamber where each stroke of the dagger is accompanied by the fury of the horses, and of Macbeth faced with Macduff at the close, amidst the roaring fire of Birnam Wood. These two scenes alone capture the energy of Kurzel’s Macbeth, a worthy adaptation of a tragic tale of tortured souls, which offers itself brilliantly to the screen. As fierce as it is poetic, Macbeth is an experience that will take your breath away, and stands testament to the director’s obvious talent for theatrical emotion.