Review: ‘Macbeth’ is a Visceral, Awe-Inspiring Shakespeare Adaptation

By December 1, 2015
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Whenever a filmmaker tasks themselves with creating a new adaptation of any of Shakespeare’s works, it is a tall order to not only honor the original source material and words, but also to bring them to life cinematically in a way that feels refreshing and unique. Going into director Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth recently too, I was more than ready for the kind of hard-biting and visceral experience that its story and trailers had promised. Coming off of some serious festival heat following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this summer as well - Macbeth not only lives up to its hype, but also plants itself firmly near the top of the best onscreen Shakespeare adaptations.

Moving swiftly from the emotional gutting of a personal tragedy, to the intense fields of a savage battle, it becomes clear within the first few moments of the movie that the latest adaptation of the Scottish Play won’t be shying away from some of the source material’s darkness and brutality, as much as it will be embracing it openly, and without any hesitation. Coming off of his directorial debut with The Snowtown Murders too, a poetically dark true-crime film, Kurzel once again is able to combine his stylistic tendencies with a thematic darkness that few other filmmakers are able to balance nowadays.

Kurzel stages the film’s opening battle brilliantly, inter-cutting slow motion with real time action as the two opposing sides collide in a hack-and-slash fight. Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth leads the charge, cutting down any enemies that stand in his way, replacing the kind of emotional intensity exhibited in the opening scene with a kind of demonic brutality, that combined with the Scottish war paint on his face, makes him resemble more animal than man. Its in the opening fight too when Kurzel begins to employ some of his more stylistic and gutsy visual techniques, cutting quickly from a shot of Macbeth sprinting across the battlefield, to the lead character standing still amongst the chaos, contemplating his situation to the audience. While describing it may sound jarring, the film evokes the exact opposite reaction, promising a Macbeth adaptation unlike any we’ve seen before.

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Driven by several of the film’s performances though, including Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, as well as key supporting players including Sean Harris, Paddy Considine, and Jack Reynor – the actors are able to bring their performances to a level of true beauty that matches the film’s equally stunning visuals. Fassbender delivers some of his best work as Macbeth, following up his already critically-acclaimed turn as Steve Jobs in the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic just a few months ago too, and here he brings a quiet intensity to his Macbeth that equips him with the ability to say just as much in a battle cry as he could silently staring at you from across an empty castle hall. With both this and the previously mentioned Jobs, he’s sure to find himself in the awards pool somewhere early next year.

Cotillard is able to bring the ferocity to her Lady Macbeth that fans of the play are already familiar with, and while she has a number of stellar solo scenes throughout the film, it’s when she’s able to bounce off of Fassbender’s Macbeth where they’re both able to fire on all cylinders, with one scene in specific taking place on a bedroom floor that will leave any audience member paying attention with their jaws wide open. Combining sexual tension, madness, paranoia, regret, and ambition delicately into one scene, it is a masterclass on all fronts, and will go down as one of the best sequences of 2015.

The film’s action is breathtaking from beginning to end, and Kurzel works with his cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, to stage each sequence in the film so beautifully that its hard not to be blown away by the film’s visuals alone, including a specific battle near the end of the film that is entirely immersed in a fiery orange and red atmosphere – making it resemble a painting more than anything else. Going into next year’s awards season too up until this point, I would have thought that the Oscar for Best Cinematography would have come down to either Roger Deakins’ for Sicario, or Emmanuel Lubezki’s ballsy camera work in The Revenant, but with this late addition, we may have found our winner.

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Kurzel and his screenwriters Todd Louiso, Michael Lesslie and Jacob Koskoff have done the near impossible with this adaptation though, reimagining several scenes from the original play, in their own way that doesn’t feel blasphemous, as much as they feel welcomed. The film’s scale and set designs allows both the actors and the camera to move around in ways that might not have been fully realized before either, and when Macbeth finally gives his iconic monologue during Act 5, Scene 5, it is in a way that no other film adaptation has presented it in before, as Macbeth struts around his chamber like a man dancing without a partner.

There will likely be some Shakespeare fans out there disappointed by some of the film’s cuts from the source material, but the film’s forceful pacing demands that these omissions be made. There are at least a small number of instances throughout where a scene feels cut short or cut entirely though, and is probably one of the only criticisms I have with it. However, for someone out there that may not be a fan of the Scottish Play, or as familiar with its story, the omissions will likely be unnoticeable, and considering the volatile attitude that the film has because of these decisions, the cuts are earned by the time it cuts to black.

The simple truth is that it’s hard to see a Shakespeare adaptation nowadays, and not think of an earlier, better version. However, with Macbeth, Justin Kurzel and his team have created an adaptation that will likely be the starting point for a number of audience members out there hoping to delve more deeply into Shakespeare’s career, even if it might be a bit too violent for High School English classes. Nonetheless, it will stick with you for weeks afterwards.

Macbeth will hit theatres on December 4th.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable
  • David Johnson

    This sounds like something i need to see, but My favorite Shakespeare adaptation is “Men Of Respect”!