Congratulations are in order for Justin Kurzel. His Macbeth comes closer than any other Shakespeare adaptation to approximating Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet from Last Action Hero.
Arnie, in black and white, brandishes an automatic rifle, and lays waste to half of Denmark. “Hey Claudius! You killed my fadda! Big mistake!” Now, Kurzel’s Macbeth isn’t entirely so deranged, but it’s curious to see “The Tragedy” get a grisly, often kinetic polish. Here, Michael Fassbender is the lead, and he’s bathed in reds, dirt, grime, spittle, and you-don’t-wanna-know-what-else as he squares off with armies like an eager brute. Granted, Macbeth is perhaps the bloodiest of The Bard… Australian director Justin Kurzel goes for full flowing plasma with his vicious arthouse vision of the power hungry general and his goading, alluring wife (Marion Cotillard) for this new Macbeth. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but this Macbeth is steeped in the poetry of modern blockbusters, complete with vivid photography and effects. It’s not the worst thing.
For the few souls that weren’t required to translate it for a term paper, Macbeth is Shakespeare’s 17th-century play about a courageous Scottish military man who’s tempted by power, only to get what he wants before being consumed by madness. Macbeth is instigated by a coven of witches, fevered visions, and perhaps one of the most famous literary characters of all time: his nefarious wife, the Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s seen many a fantastic filmic adaptation. There’s the famously bizarre Polanski version. There’s the pompous and melodramatic Orson Welles take. For 2015, Kurzel opts for a sort of art-house knife party atmosphere, in lieu of just staging a play. The skies are a constant crimson as if to suggest the end of days, as though everyone is going to die if you just give it a minute.
Macbeth features a fabulously unhinged Fassbender. It’s been said before, and will be said again, but Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors of this generation. This Macbeth is a silent warrior, an unfair ruler, and a man swirling the drain of his own madness. Fassbender stares long into the camera, intensely, and the camera keeps at him even as Macbeth’s insecure and guilt-ridden rule drives him to shambles. He enunciates through his teeth, his wild and often silhouetted hair hints at his mental unraveling, and Fassbender sweats through his sunken eyes when scared and angry. Fassbender bites into the famous character, providing arguably the showiest but fullest version of the character in recent memory. Fassbender’s an actor at the top of his game, proud to show off his acting range in a tested role. It’s like watching a prize performer exercise his acting chops in drama school and getting an A for his effort every time.
As for Lady Macbeth, Cotillard turns in an enigmatic, haunted take on the world’s most manipulative wife. It’s all in the eyes. Cotillard is a catch for the role, and perhaps the most dynamic actress to ever play the not-so-fair lady. Both Cotillard and Fassbender elevate the classical roles with gifted facial expression, full of dirty, bonny madness.
Back to Kurzel’s direction. He’s a strikingly formal visualist, with square framing and lugubrious long shots one after the next, but always with a hyper-masculine bent. Kurzel directs like a thinking man’s Zack Snyder. His aesthetic, saturated and rich, gets all the historical and mental impedimenta of Macbeth right on. But Kurzel’s tendency to play with hyper-modern tactics, like slow-motion and violent makeup effects, is absolutely up for debate. In order for Macbeth or any classical literature to be filmed in this day and age, it seems as though action genre excesses (guts and gazing) are necessary for an update to be deemed worthwhile. And Kurzel makes it count when he needs to, but it’s a long, hard road full of smashed noses and battered bodies and shock thrills. Either the violence will allure with its intensity, or it’ll make old-minded literary types wince. It’s a fierce, visceral vision with a superb cast, that one suspects was more focused on pumping up Macbeth than reminding people why it’s such a lasting cautionary tale. That’s the do or die of this Macbeth.