Hands down this is the definitive version of Macbeth. As a lover of Shakespeare, or as someone even slightly partial to cinema, this is a film that you must see and that you will surely love.
The most recent take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel, is a masterclass in adaptation, in cinematography and sound, in acting and of course in directing. It is a tour-de-force that displays in awesome spectacle, the full power of cinema.
For those who don’t know, the story of Macbeth is one of a Scottish thane (think a count or duke), the eponymous Macbeth, being visited by a group of witches who give him prophetic accounts of his future. Spurred on by these Weird Sisters, Macbeth assassinates the King and is crowned his successor, and is subsequently racked by guilt and paranoia, descending into madness.
The film is led by Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, whom as a pair give astounding performances, bringing Shakespeare’s peerless verse to life with captivating force. As one of Shakespeare’s most well-known female characters, Cotillard is sublime, contrasting greedy ambition with despair tinged by madness, and showing the transition her character undergoes with stunning control. As good as the Oscar winning actress is, however, Fassbender’s performance is just a shade better. Already a superb character actor, Fassbender submerges himself in Macbeth to a greater degree than ever before. He dominates the film to the extent that there’s almost a Fassbender-shaped hole in any scene he’s not in, and is simply electrifying throughout. His Macbeth is one of disturbing intensity and menacing threat, of vulnerability and insanity. Watching it is like seeing a man possessed.
Justin Kurzel’s direction of the film is of the same quality as his actors’ performances. Almost every scene manages to frame the Scottish landscape with terrible beauty; the battle sequences (there are two, between which the rest of film is contained) are stunning, cutting between wide, ultra-slow motion shots and up-close fast-paced action; the music floats eerie and discordant throughout the film, creating an unsettling tone before peaking into crescendos of furious power. Every aspect of the film demands the audience’s undivided, enthralled attention – from the very first moment the film becomes the only thing you could possibly focus on. And if the first two thirds are amongst the most intense things you’ve ever experienced (and trust me, they will be), the climax is something that transcends intensity. Hazy orange perfection. It’s one of those moments that you can try for hours to describe, but that needs to be seen first-hand to ever really be understood.
So often when people try to adapt Shakespeare, they treat his plays like fragile, almost ethereal things. Things that can only be handled with the lightest of touches, things which will break and crumble and fade if overexposed. Kurzel, in this film, has shown that he sees the plays for what they really are – scripts, guides, the barebones of some of the greatest stories ever told. He has taken Shakespeare’s play, Shakespeare’s characters, and Shakespeare’s language, and he has made it all his own. The Australian director has, in a whirlwind of his own brilliance, shown why Shakespeare is revered as much as he is. He has created a film that, even if you don’t personally enjoy it, you cannot fail to see its excellence. He has created one of the best adaptations of anything ever, almost certainly the best film of the year, and possibly one of the best films full-stop.
Macbeth (2015), directed by Justin Kurzel, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal. Certificate 15.