It’s a pretty ambitious goal to adapt Shakespeare. There have been a limited number of films to do it in the last twenty five years with a successful outcome. Baz Luhrmann made Romeo and Juliet work for him, Kenneth Branagh has a few adaptations that worked out well and the modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate About You holds a soft spot in my heart. Some of the darker themed ones like Titus and The Tempest flourished under the eye of visual director Julie Taymor, but a revered and many times tried adaptation is Macbeth, which has seen the likes of Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa tackle the popular play.
Now under director Justin Kurzel, a new Macbeth film is here with one of the best actors currently working today, Michael Fassbender, in the lead role. This is also the only film one of my favorite actresses Marion Cotillard appeared in all year. If you look at the trailer it seems to be a very Winding Refn Valhalla Rising-esque style approach to the Scottish tragedy of murder, guilt and the corruption of power and with a great cast framed in there, how could it go wrong?
For those unclear on the plot of Macbeth, the story follows our titular character, the heroic lead warrior for King Duncan. Macbeth is basically a rock star among the men, well respected and everyone wants to be him. After winning the final battle of a civil war, which ends with heavy losses including a lot of young boy soldiers, Macbeth and his close friend Banquo are approached by three women with a small girl and an infant. They prophesize that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and future King, and Banquo’s sons will be Kings. They then disappear into the fog, leaving Macbeth questioning everything.
After the current Thane of Cawdor is found to be a traitor, and Macbeth is bewildered to find the women’s words come true as he is awarded the title. He then informs his wife of the prophecy and what had already transpired and this sets a devious plot into motion. She urges Macbeth to kill Duncan and take the crown from him, completing the rise to power. The result will be a guilt and paranoia that destroys them both.
I have to say the film looks absolutely gorgeous, particularly the beginning war sequence, a mesmerizing and crisp slow motion filled scene, and the ending a blazing red veiled showdown that is very indicative of a Nicolas Winding Refn comparison. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, known for his work on the entire first season of True Detective, really makes your eyes drink in every fog covered shot of the entire two hour film. The end of that sentence indicates the beginning of the biggest issue of this movie. It’s only two hours? With credits?
For anyone that had to cover Macbeth in school, this is a play that is definitely over two hours, actually closer, if not over, three. Kurzel’s Macbeth seems to trim a bunch of Shakespeare’s character development, motivations and key plot elements in a haphazard way that makes the story feel chunked up like there was a budgetary constraint. One of the iconic moments of Macbeth comes with Lady Macbeth shaking with guilt, scrubbing at a nonexistent blood stain on her hand crying “Out, out damn spot!” This line is in the movie but the scene has been omitted leading us to this point. What spot is she talking about? In this version, we’ll never know.
I waxed on earlier about how much I love Fassbender and Cotillard, and that’s unwavering, but this film let me down hard in that department. Fassbender relishes playing the emotional and dour Macbeth but his turn from a greedy and power hungry Thane to King sours a bit when he almost inexplicably becomes mad with paranoia and guilt. It’s a hard and jarring shift that isn’t relegated to just him. Cotillard comes off absolutely evil in her first scene as the scheming wife and makes a split second decision to become remorse filled victim by the end. She’s appeared in only one film released for us in 2015 and this is a severe change from the brilliance she usually brings.
“What’s done can not be undone”, a line that applies directly to this misfire of a Shakespeare adaptation. The writers decided that many points of Macbeth were unimportant to the final story they were telling and once these choices were made there was no redemption for this film to be truly worthy of the time spent watching it. About an hour in I felt that the story had become hollow underneath all of it’s beautiful style. It left me asking in the end, why mess with a good thing? Especially if you’re doing something that was a proven success over and over again. For all the attempts Justin Kurzel did to try and make a mark, Macbeth fails. It gets a two and a half out of five.