(Originally published 2 November 2015)
Putting a new spin on a classic tale can always be an exciting, but daunting task. Justin Kurzel tackles this ambitiously with one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, Macbeth. The violent text about the follies of over-ambition and paranoia are offset in a very naturalistic setting of the Scottish Highlands with some visually striking and beautiful cinematography and a pungent, realistic atmosphere. While this does work to make the text grounded, it loses a lot of the dramatics and wonderfully avant-garde nature that makes the play so beloved.
A lot of this has to do with the performaactingnces. Experimental Shakespeare productions like this struggle to marry the more theatrical performances with one more befitting the chosen setting. While actors like Marion Cotillard are astounding, they’re more traditional in tone compared to the grounded style of others.
At the same time, the dialogue is fitted for those more dramatic expressions, which causes arguably the most important element of Shakespeare’s work to come off as flat in the hands of other actors. The more muted voices, and multitude of accents, also makes the dialogue difficult to hear in places and breaks the suspension of disbelief.
While Michael Fassbender is an excellent actor, and on paper he is just perfect for the tragic king of Scotland, his performance leaves a lot to be desired. He sells the subtler moments, but his intensity does not play off well in the more dramatic and violent scenes. He’s an actor who excels at being understated and consistently nuanced, making this more traditionally dramatic flair sadly failing to reach that hype.
That isn’t to say that the film is completely without merit, because most of the other elements work wonderfully. The use of dazzling and beautiful imagery really adds to the majesty of the piece, and brings out harsher elements without breaking the tone. There’s an added element of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth losing a child to motivate their later actions. While this may annoy some purists, it really add layers to these characters.
However, some of this artistry can either work for the story or not. There are several moments so out there and strange that it really takes you out of the story. Examples includes moments showing Macbeth while he’s mentally breaking down, or his actions during the famous ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ speech. Probably the element that suffers the most is the Witches, while they are muted to fit this interpretation, nothing about them feels memorable, which sorely hurts their importance to the narrative.
‘Macbeth’ is an ambitious, highly stylised version of the text featuring some standout performances and excellent cinematography. The thematic nuances of the ceaseless cycle of violence and mental degradation are excellently told and really add to this retelling. Had it managed to stay consistent both in the acting and style, this would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s an interesting if slightly off-kilter effort from a visionary and quite interesting filmmaker.