Braveheart meets the Bard for a blood-soaked game of thrones in Justin Kurzel’s lean, mean and absolutely sensational adaptation of the terrifying tale of Macbeth. It’s the only Shakespearean play that is entirely about evil, its protagonist the only of his who is damned beyond any redemption. We’ve seen a lot of Macbeths (Welles, Kurosawa, Polanksi, for starters). Really a lot. But you have never shed tears for Macbeth or his ferocious co-conspirator, the decidedly unhinged Lady Macbeth. Not until now.
Australian Kurzel — whose Snowtown promised good things but hardly something this astonishing — working with a screenplay credited to the unlikely quartet of Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie, Todd Louiso and William Shakespeare, pares down dialogue (and witchcraft), looking for the humanity in the Macbeths. The couple are first seen paralysed with grief at the funeral pyre of a little boy, and everything that follows may be seen, if not pardoned, as a frantic power-grabbing bid to fill the void in their lives. Their impulse to hasten prediction along by murdering the king, Duncan (David Thewlis), with scant consideration to morality or consequences, is catastrophic for them, bloody deeds begetting ever bloodier ones.
Fassbender is ideal. He looks like a warrior and leader of men and he has the resources to mesmerise with Macbeth’s darkly poetic introspection, his flickers of conscience and increasingly desperate tyranny. It’s as if he is daring heaven, Earth and all comers to bring him to his knees, and he’s not having it. Marion Cotillard is magnificent (and not too obviously French), carried away by ambition, power and glory but unable to keep her despair at bay. She cuts a pitiable tragic figure, her disintegration beautifully, quietly calibrated. Instead of raging with hysterical madness she fades away, consumed by grief and guilt.
It’s shot exquisitely (by DP Adam Arkapaw) as a medieval piece in Scotland — mists in the gloaming, austere castles, red skies and smoky battlefields. It’s also rigorously controlled, from soliloquy and intimacies to big battle action and boldly brutal set-pieces (a vindictive Macbeth personally murders Lady Macduff and the little Macduffs in a shocking, gut-twisting deviation from the text). Twists from the original text yield ingenious invention, like the stunning surprise of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, proving that an unconventional take on a classic can still bring it to new, breathtakingly cinematic life.