Out of all the adaptations of the works of Shakespeare in film, Macbeth is probably the play where my familiarity comes through radically different interpretations of the text. I haven’t seen a true adaptation of Macbeth set in the time period originally described, the adaptations I’m most familiar with being Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which adapted the text to Japanese myths, and the BBC Shakespeare Retold version with James McAvoy set in a restaurant. This new version of Macbeth is the one I’ve seen that’s truest to the text, using most of Shakespeare’s original dialogue and it’s probably my favourite of the adaptations of Macbeth I’ve seen.
I’m sure most people are familiar with the plot of Macbeth but for those who aren’t a quick summary. The plot focuses on Macbeth, a Scottish general and Thane of Glamis, who is given a prophecy by a group of witches that he shall become the King of Scotland. Whilst initially dismissive, he becomes convinced when one part of the prophecy comes true and he decides, goaded on by his wife, to murder King Duncan so Macbeth can take over. However, after the murder, with Duncan’s son Malcolm fleeing to avoid being considered a suspect, Macbeth becomes more paranoid, especially regarding another element of the prophecy that Banquo, a colleague of his in the Scottish army, would father a line of kings, whilst at the same time, the guilt of their actions starts to haunt Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Now with any adaptation of Shakespeare liberties have to be taken with the text to ensure it fits the vision of the director and the parameters of the film medium. In the case of this adaptation, there is both a removal of some parts of the text, most notably half of the dialogue of the Weird Sisters in the opening scene is cut out, but expansion in other areas. This version of Macbeth includes the interpretation that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lost a child shortly before the events of the play and this informs some of the actions the characters take, mainly the desire for power by the leads and their descent into madness due to a feeling of emptiness that the characters have and a desire to avoid anything else like it. The main elements of the text are presented brilliantly in this film, mainly Macbeth’s descent into madness and the increasing guilt that Lady Macbeth feels, after showing the power that Lady Macbeth has, with it being clear at the start that she is the mastermind behind everything, as the plan to kill Duncan would have fallen apart if it wasn’t for her. At the same time, the explicit nature of the death of her child does make Lady Macbeth a bit more sympathetic with this death compounding the feeling of guilt that the character has near the end of the film. Sure there are some points where the dialogue is a little bit hard to understand but it never fully detracted me from the experience.
The cast meanwhile sell the hell out of the text, with this film having probably one of the best screen versions of Macbeth seen with Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is a perfect choice for Macbeth, brilliantly showing the strength of the character at the start of the film, letting you understand how he became so trusted by Duncan, along with showing his skill as a warrior. When Macbeth starts to go insane, Fassbender handles the transition brilliantly, making it feel incredibly natural for the character and when he’s full blown insane, he can be quite terrifying because of how unpredictable he is. Marion Cotillard is also great as Lady Macbeth, although there are some limitations to her performance. On a body language level, Cotillard is excellent, brilliantly showing the Machiavellian nature of the character at the start, letting you know that she is the one in control and when she gets overcome with grief at the end of the film, Cotillard brilliantly shows the transition. If there is an element to the performance that doesn’t work it’s the accent. For some reason her accent feels a bit off, I can’t explain why but if you see the film you know what I mean. Paddy Considine is also great as Banquo. Whilst he doesn’t get as much dialogue, the scenes he has he’s great in, brilliantly showing the connection he has to Macbeth and to his son. The best element of his performance though is his physical presence, which is key for one of the most important scenes in the film. Sean Harris also does a good job as Macduff, showing his gradual distrust of Macbeth well, along with being a great, intimidating presence to let you know the skill of the character at the end. There are some performances that aren’t as fleshed out though. Whilst they’re good, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor and Elizabeth Debicki don’t get enough screentime to become fully memorable and their characters are the weakest in the film, but this is more than made up for by how brilliant Fassbender is.
The technical side of the film is where this film truly shines though. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful films of the year. Director Justin Kurzel and DP Adam Arkapaw create a version of Macbeth unlike any put on screen before. The use of colour in the film, from the use of yellow in the scenes with the Weird Sisters and blue at the start of the film to the deep, imposing red in the final battle scene, the use of mist and fog during the battles and when Macbeth is doubting himself, and the brilliantly done establishing shots (which make great use of the physical environment of the Isle of Skye) all combine together to create some of the best imagery of the year. This also helps show the power of the films visual storytelling, most notably in the scenes with the Weird Sisters, with the colours and the body language creating this unnatural quality that fits with the whole aesthetic of the characters. These scenes also make great use of Scot Greenan as a young soldier who Macbeth sees throughout the film who died in the battle at the start of the film, with the direction in these scenes brilliantly showing the turmoil in Macbeth’s mind and his growing insanity. The battle scenes themselves are also brilliantly filmed, with great use of wide shots and slow motion to highlight the brutality of the battles, making sure every speck of blood and mud can be seen, making this a really intense and gritty film, and I have to admit that I was on the edge of my seat during these scenes because of how intense they were. The costume design is excellent as well, from the armour and weapons of the soldiers covered in rust and being really bulky which fits with the nature of the battles, to the costumes for Lady Macbeth ranging from the black dresses she wears to show her grief and her resolve for power, to the dresses she wears as Queen, denoting the power that she has and the intelligence she has to keep Macbeth in check.
Overall, Macbeth is a great adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. On a purely visual level, this is one of the best films of the year, one of those films where you can turn the sound off and still understand everything that’s going on due to the quality of the visual storytelling. These visuals are matched by a career best performance from Michael Fassbender, who is having a great year so far between this and Slow West (here’s hoping Steve Jobs continues this trend). Sure Marion Cotillard’s accent is a bit distracting and some of the other actors are wasted but these don’t detract from the powerful experience this film is.
My Rating: 4/5