Easily one of William Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, “Macbeth” is believed to have been first performed 1606. Since then it has been adapted to nearly every form of media. The tragedy deals with several themes but at its core it examines unbridled ambition and the destruction it brings if unchecked.
Director Justin Kurzel along with a trio of screenwriters and a fantastic supporting cast begin their telling with a couple of notable deviations from the Bard’s classic text. The first is the opening scene – a haunting overhead shot of a deceased young child in a straw bassinet laying upon a funeral pyre. The infant is surrounded by loved ones shrouded in black including the child’s grieving parents Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard).
Shakespeare alludes to the Macbeth’s loss of a child, but Kurzel focuses on it as an entry point to their story. It’s significant in that it adds another layer (a far more penetrating one) to the couple aside from the lust for power that eventually consumes them. Here we see the sorrow of such a loss emphasized and for the Macbeth’s the wounds never fully heal. It’s an effective focus for the story.
Another deviation is that Kurzel shows the final battle sequence spoken of by Shakespeare. Still mourning the death of his young son, we see Macbeth on the battlefield preparing his ragtag group for what’s ahead. Among his soldiers is a young boy, undoubtedly a reminder of his own. Macbeth leads his band to victory but there are heavy casualties. During this sequence we see Macbeth as a mighty soldier but war has clearly taken its toll. Fassbender’s eyes do wonders in revealing the fragility hidden underneath the rugged exterior. This is another key defining point to what lies ahead.
While still on the battlefield Macbeth and his chief ally Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches (possibly five depending on your interpretation) wandering and observing through the post-battle haze. The witches prophesy that Macbeth with soon be Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. Banquo is told he will be a “father of Kings”. Later the sitting ruler King Duncan (David Thewlis) arrives and determines the Thane of Cawdor to be a traitor. Due to his success in battle Macbeth is given the position seemingly verifying the witches’ prophesy.
Upon hearing this Lady Macbeth begins feeding her husband’s hunger for power. Cotillard has a magnificent presence both as a manipulative and devious conniver and as a grief-stricken mother. Again, the film’s opening scene adds this welcomed bit of nuance and it is something that haunts her character throughout the movie.
The ascension to power and subsequent spiral into madness is skillfully handled. Macbeth soaks in paranoia and blood. Lady Macbeth is torn by guilt and shame. Through it all Fassbender and Cottilard shine. They both are so keenly in tune with their characters and the unique period dialogue they are given. Visually, stylish flairs are found all through the film. They drive the mood and superbly capture a cold, muddy medieval Scotland.
The true tragedy of this story doesn’t simply lie with the Macbeths. The greater tragedy is how the consequences of their actions shake the entirety of Scotland to its core. Kurzel keenly explores the classic tale while offering a few of his own original twists. Literary purists may be put off by this, but it kept me mesmerized from its heart-shattering opening scene, through a couple of slow patches, and right up to its slightly nihilistic ending. I say nihilistic but like much of the film, I guess it’s all in the interpretation.
VERDICT – 4 STARS