Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and brief Sexuality
Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie & Todd Louiso
(based on the play MACBETH by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki & David Thewlis
In the vast history of the English language, there has been no figure more influential or important than William Shakespeare. Reaching his popularity in Elizabethan London, Shakespeare penned 38 known plays. Some of these were histories (RICHARD III, HENRY V). Others were comedies (THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). While these types of plays are great in their own ways, his tragedies have always struck a special place in my heart. Always revolving around one person’s downward (involving politics in CORIOLANUS, brought on by revenge in TITUS, etc.), these plays stand out as powerful works that function on both a primal level through their decidedly depressing emotions and on more sophisticated ground given the eloquent dialogue and complex characters. MACBETH, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, has been adapted onto the stage and screen many times. With his second feature, director Justin Kurzel has impressively crafted what could very well go down as the definitive cinematic version of the “Scottish Play.”
Macbeth is a Scottish general fighting for King Duncan in a violent civil war. After winning a particularly bloody battle, Macbeth and Banquo (his best friend and fellow general) come across a congregation of witches. These weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be crowned king. Initially writing off the strange premonition as the ramblings of some crazy women, Macbeth soon finds himself with an opportunity to dine with King Duncan. Spurred on by the urging of his cunning wife, Macbeth murders the Duncan and is crowned King of Scotland. Lady Macbeth starts to regret their evil deed, Macbeth slips slowly into madness, and a rebellion is beginning to brew in the countryside.
The key to any good Shakespeare adaptation usually comes in the form of great performances. While there’s so much more to address in this movie, I need to praise the performers who perfectly encapsulate the complex cast of characters. Michael Fassbender easily brings the title tragic hero to life through stellar line delivery and little physical tics. Fassbender’s Macbeth isn’t simply a mad tyrant rising to power. He’s also a traumatized soldier and a father dealing with the untimely loss of his child. Paddy Considine is instantly likable as Banquo, while Sean Harris channels a quiet rage as Macduff. Though he doesn’t have a huge role, David Thewlis makes a strong impression as King Duncan. The real show-stopper is Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. She’s remarkably unsympathetic in the first half of the film and then gradually earns some unexpected (and probably undeserved) sympathy from the viewer as the story moves forward.
In any cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare, obvious changes need to be made in translating the original play onto film. What works on the stage won’t always work on the screen. Compacting Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy into a two-hour film leaves room for every important scene, but there are unconventional decisions in regards to how these moments are executed. The only major changes involving characters are there being more than three witches, only two assassins, and King Duncan having one son (as opposed to two). These are minor moves when you take into consideration how some of the play’s most famous speeches play out as well as a couple of dialogue-free sequences that add extra context to the characters. The Dagger speech is brilliantly translated with an addition that brings more weight to the words being spoken. Instead of following the play’s conclusion in a traditional way, a lot of ballsy decisions are made in the final 30 minutes of this film that somehow make Act V far more powerful than one could have possibly hoped for.
On the technical side of things, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Every single frame looks beautiful. The fog-laden locations, elaborate sets, and convincing costumes are all aided by a soundtrack that sounds very appropriate to the time period of the story. As if the performances and unconventional choices weren’t doing enough to capture the melancholy tone of Shakespeare’s tragedy, these technical touches are icing on the bloody cake. It should also be noted that this is definitely one Shakespeare film that won’t be shown in many high school classrooms. The R rating is earned for graphic violence and two surprisingly sexual moments that fit perfectly into the context of the story. The former is demonstrated through a variety of scenes including a brutal finale that had me wincing. The latter comes from two sequences between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
MACBETH is everything that I could have possibly hoped it would be and more. Unexpected twists on the often-visited Shakespeare tragedy make this interpretation stick out among its stiff competition. The performances are amazing, with Marion Cotillard being the best of the bunch. Stunning visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, and mature R-rated sensibilities only make it that much better. 2015’s MACBETH is as perfect as Shakespeare can be on the big screen.