Like its eponymous character, Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is a film pulled in myriad directions for a sense of purpose. It is faithful to Shakespeare’s text in many ways, including period setting, but the film also cuts iconic moments (no “something wicked this way comes”) and reframes many a key scene with notably different staging. Macbeth keeps Shakespeare’s dialogue, but the stars will often deliver the lines at considerably more guttural and mumbling pitches than you’re likely to find on stage.
Kurzel’s film veers from being upfront and unapologetic about its protagonist’s gory rise to power in some sequences (something carried over from the director’s debut, Snowtown), but then dilutes other moments of violence with editorial embellishments that pull back from the horror. The combat sequences range from thrashing Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones-esque melee to slo-mo sword-swinging somewhat akin to 300 (which Macbeth star Michael Fassbender was actually in), thankfully minus the part where it looks like a computer vomited up bronzer.
As might be gathered, Macbeth is a considerably mixed bag, stylistically. Does it at least tend to work? The film certainly doesn’t outright blunder all that much, and there are excellent elements scattered throughout, even if the whole ultimately feels a little hollow (crown).
One of the major narrative changes is actually pretty interesting. As the film begins, before we head to a battlefield, the Macbeths have just lost a child. Some may decry that this makes grief Macbeth’s primary tragic flaw (rather than ambition), but it allows for an intriguing delirium to the character’s depiction before he even gets wind of the prophecies that promise him glory, brief as it may be. Most notably, however, in the final act, the background of Macbeth’s child loss lends an extra cruelty to the fate of Macduff’s children. Macbeth knows what it’s like to have a child die, but he’ll still go ahead and light the stake for the Macduff clan’s pyre.
When it comes to the performances, Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, as Lady Macbeth, are reliably strong, while Paddy Considine quietly steals all of his scenes as Banquo. The somewhat surprising MVP is actually Sean Harris as Macduff. Harris, who more often than not is cast as creepy villains (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; A Lonely Place to Die), gets to play against type as the arguable hero of the tale, and receives one of the film’s more memorable visceral images via a broken nose in the final fight with Macbeth, which is drenched in a fiery orange hue by DP Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake; Lore).
If there’s any complaints to be had with the film, it’s rarely the visuals (and more about the editing), as Arkapaw and the production design team produce a fully lived-in looking realm of grime and gore. Some of the barbarism scenes actually bring to mind Aleksey German’s recent Hard to Be a God, albeit free of black and white and lit up by a considerably more primordial colour scheme. Hard to Be a Scot, perhaps?
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently a contributing editor at PopOptiq, a writer for VODzilla.co, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.