The latest incarnation of Macbeth opens with a scene of its own devising, casting all that follows in a new light. The ambitious general (Michael Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard) look on in silent grief as their young child is laid to rest. As with most other sequences in this film, the imagery is as beautiful as it is despairing: white funereal robe cast against the gray earth, stones placed over the eyes of the deceased.
Not that Shakespeare's tragic hero needed more reason to be melancholy, but this crucial choice instantly differentiates director Justin Kurzel's adaptation from those of his many predecessors. Macbeth isn't simply power-mad or easily persuaded by his conniving better half; he's crippled by the mourning process and, as we'll soon see, likely suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder after one battle too many.
"Civil war rages in Scotland," reads a blood-red intertitle just moments after the ceremony. Along with a foreboding string arrangement composed by the director's brother Jed, these words set the post-prologue scene: Macbeth is loyal to King Duncan (David Thewlis), whose enemies are within striking distance of dethroning him, and has one final chance to turn the tide in favor of his liege.
The decisive battle that follows is all baroque blood and sinew, much of it shed by boys just a few years older than Macbeth's buried child. (One of the dead will appear to him later, just one of many spirits haunting him.) The skirmish alternates between hyper slow motion and frenzied action, with Macbeth instantly distinguishing himself as a warrior like few others. After he has beheaded the last of his foes, the famous trio of witches make their famous prophecy: Macbeth will be king, though the why and the how remain unknown.
The three women, far from cackling hags veering on camp, are quiet and only seen from a distance. For all we know, they may only be projections of Macbeth's increasingly unmoored mind. The open plain has a reddish tint to it, as though flames from the sun have made their way to earth and ash overwhelms the sky. Speaking so softly, they demand a kind of attention that could never be garnered by more bombastic pronouncements — a trait shared by Macbeth as a whole.
Kurzel isn't the first to speculate about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's parental woes, but in making the source of their dismay explicit he also makes this version of the characters his own. Macbeth's monologues are delivered under his breath, like a man who hasn't slept in days trying to stay awake lest his nightmares haunt him more than they already do; Lady Macbeth's "Out, damned spot" speech (spoken by Cotillard in one brilliant, unbroken take) is shown entirely in close-up, and only at its end do we realize she's speaking to a vision of her dead son.
After the heavyweights who've taken on this play before — Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski, to name a few — Kurzel would seem an odd choice to helm such an undertaking; his only prior feature-length film was the 2011 independent Australian production, The Snowtown Murders. But it delved into similarly bloody goings-on (an infamous gang of serial killers in South Australia), and though not nearly as accomplished as his Macbeth, apparently provided him an insight into what makes people cross a line from which there can be no going back.
Lesser efforts to bring the Bard's work to screen tend to fall into two camps: those that make it too outlandish and those that simply look like someone brought a camera to the Globe Theatre. Kurzel's take on the material suffers from neither affliction, occupying the rare status of a faithful adaptation that's also aggressively cinematic. Those with a tin ear for his dialogue may wish they had the CliffsNotes handy, but the striking visuals guide the way more breathlessly than any footnote could.
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Opens Friday, Edina Cinema and St. Anthony Main Theatre