Movie Review: Macbeth (2015)

Macbeth-2015-Movie-Wallpaper-15William Shakespeare’s Macbeth might very well be his most potentially cinematic of plays, or “visually superb” as the great Shakespearean translator and actor Laurence Olivier once remarked. Ingrained within the Bard’s ruthlessly swift, diabolically intriguing, and theatrically murderous text are grand themes with complimentary visual possibilities: monstrous ambition amidst desolate scarcity; a guilty paranoid descent into violent madness; and a blood-soaked finale that succinctly defines the label of Shakespearean tragedy, which sees the tireless, yet fruitless, self-fulfilling fight against an envisioned prophecy. Numerous filmmakers have tackled this timeless tale of bloodthirsty quest for power before, including Orson Welles’ hellishly atmospheric, yet mildly flawed, version from 1948, Akira Kurosawa’s phenomenally streamlined medieval Japan adaptation Throne of Blood (1957), and Roman Polanki’s post-Manson murders version from 1971 that was a full immersion into the murky depths of human treachery. Following in their footsteps is Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel, whose fascination for violence was already explored in his previous sole feature The Snowtown Murders (2011)—a horrifying, naturalistic study on isolated violence and the psychosis of a serial killer set in the suburbs of Adelaide. But a deep fascination with violence doesn’t equate an understanding of its greater impact or of its insightful psychological nuances, a feature that’s greatly missing in this depiction of Macbeth. Kurzel’s notably ambitious vision ignores the play’s poetic, steady, immoral decline of morality and instead bluntly interprets a preconceived forsaken world of perpetual bleakness; a nightmarish landscape of continuous, inevitable war and the victims of the aftermath who murderously claw, slash, and burn to gain their stature. However relevant that may seem, this butchered and mumbled adaptation—which features narcotized performances, hollow insights, and a languid pacing—ultimately strips the poetry from the text and merely replaces it with the primitivism of cinematic grandeur. Though the audience will often relish in Kurzel’s atmospheric lingering in his beautifying carnage, the dramatic weight and thrilling theatricality Shakespeare intended for “The Scottish Play” is absent, leaving only a laborious exercise in creative self-indulgence.

As it is with most Shakespearean adaptations, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a wrought mixture of narrative invention, omitted sections, and liberal interpretation, all of which carry with them a large degree of flexibility as long as the thematic essence remains intact. Because it’s one of the Bard’s shortest works—and features his arguably most accessible Elizabethan cadences—there’s ample room for creative reinterpretation, which Kurzel takes full advantage of for his dogmatic, violent vision of this classic medieval tragedy. Written and streamlined, rather ineffectively, by a bewildering total of three screenwriters (Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso) Macbeth opens with a startling, haunting image of a dead three-year-old child with stones laid over their eyes. This mournful scene—filled with palpable loss and debilitating grief—gives us some minor insight towards the murderous ambition and delusion of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), which is to remedy the ills they’ve suffered in their cruel, unfair world. However, that’s where the layers of insight end, as Macbeth is then seen with an animalistic grimace in the full brutality of a slow-motion fighting spectacle, and with one fearsome image turns the character’s descent into a significantly less tragic event. Perhaps Kurzel is attempting to say the real tragedy of his Macbeth might be the morally suffocating world the titular character is part of, but that would be an academic stretch based on little narrative or visual evidence. What then proceeds is a skeletal adaptation of the usurping Thane’s deviant progression: the seemingly medicated witches and their fatalistic prophecy; the emasculating provocation from a continuously whispering Lady Macbeth; the gory butchering of King Duncan (David Thewlis); the intoxication of power that leads to the betrayal and assassination of friend Banquo (Paddy Considine); and Macbeth’s foreshadowed undoing by the hands of vengeful Macduff (Sean Harris) when Birnam Wood is ablaze in scorching fire. All of the essential narrative beats are present, but the film plods through them with lethargic energy and lacks the menacing dramatics that make the play so delectably intriguing.

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A compliment can be made on how the film utilizes children to emphasize their prominence in the play’s original themes on lineage, stature, and the recurring cycle of violence, which is an aspect that’s regularly visited in the dialogue’s flowing nursey rhyme language (“Open locks, whoever knocks;” “The Thane of Fife had a wife;” etc.). Kurzel even invents more sequences for the younger generation to be present in his film, including the addition of a fledgling witch amongst the original three, Duncan’s son Malcolm (Jack Reynor) being present during his father’s unceremonious slaying, and Macbeth personally igniting the execution fire for Macduff’s wife and children. It’s just unfortunate that this understanding of the material and its presentation through visual themes aren’t complimented by the piercing rhythms and archaic verbiage, because they’re simply absent in the mumblings of its anesthetized cast. Kurzel treats Shakespeare’s beautiful words as an afterthought to the suffocating atmosphere of his cinematic austerity. The visuals are supposed to compliment the words, not the other way around. Even the brooding prominence of the usually infallible Michael Fassbender can’t bring a stirring life to the film’s creeping pace, as he drowns in the infinite spaces that separate each painstaking, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Fassbender’s usually an actor of physical embodiment rather than an actor of words—demonstrated effectively in numerous films from Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009)—so it’s especially excruciating to sit through a performance that shrinks in theatrical presence as the words feel forcefully dragged out of his reluctant mouth. Cotillard as the encouraging menace of Lady Macbeth—whose foreign accent and reticent verse speak makes for an awkward portrayal—isn’t particularly revelatory either. But it’s Kurzel—not the actors—who has insisted his film move at this questionable pace, be spoken in inaudible whispers, and feel smothered of all emotion. Occasionally someone breaks away from the monotony—most notably the terrifically understated Paddy Considine as the ruthful Banquo and the always impressive Sean Harris as a riveting, theatrical Macduff—but those inspired dramatic moments are few and far between.

Kurzel begins and ends his cynical adaptation of Macbeth with a battle sequence, the first painted in blackened charcoal and the last ablaze in fiery ash, which makes everything in between feel like an anticipatory pause for when the visual extravagance can continue. It’s rather clear that Kurzel’s focus is on invoking a personal cinematic form and not the material’s intriguing nuances, as the filmic palette is driven by a focus of technical and stylized camera work. Visually it’s all quite impressive—with collaborating cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders) lending his exquisite support—and its darkened morality tale is captured brutally in its violence and poetically with intimate sequences of minimal illumination. But Kurzel’s distraction with the visceral drains the material of its thematic poeticism, but at least gives the audience some fine technical achievements: the grand costumes from designer Jacqueline Durran (with a throwback to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood), the light touch editing from Chris Dickens, and a simplistic eerie score from Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother). One technical aspect that’s amiss is the desolate production design; a nomadic kingdom of torn huts, wooden churches, and a landscape of nothingness that no one would risk death or damnation to control. Once we are introduced to a magnificent cathedral in the empty wasteland it just simply doesn’t seem real, at least not enough to drive Macbeth’s temptations that leads to his deathly ambitions. And perhaps that disjointed surrealism with hyperrealism, an almost dreamlike environment, is Kurzel’s intent to comment on the unattainable goals of the character. His envisioning of Macbeth as a weaved nightmare of meaninglessness could very well have been the thematic modern revival that the play needed. However, this admirable yet cynical message never finds its elegiac grounding, as its potential is lost in a molasses like pace, a technical constricting of the senses, an overwhelming use of penetrating sound and visual fury, and a loss of the play’s true spirit.

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Shakespearean purists certainly will find loads of problems within Kurzel’s Macbeth, but textual interpretation is the least of the film’s glaring problems. The world surrounding the downfallen Thane at the end of the play is an exhausted one, drained of every last drop of morality, hope, and faith, yet this film version begins in this already desperate state. There’s no real change of setting, change of character, or change of circumstance within this Macbeth, and while it meanders in a monotonous atmosphere of cynicism it simply drains the viewer and drains the film of its potential morality reflection and sincere character soul-searching. It’s a simplified version with complicated features, which Kurzel utilizes to his advantage to not be restrained by the pesky text or its vaulting theatricality. Instead, the director embraces a lamenting intimacy to the character, and in doing so he makes the mistake in assuming his dogmatic vision is one that either entertains or unveils something deeper about his subject. He’s wrong on both parts, and has astonishingly turned a swiftly written play about prophetic witches, devious planning, demented ambitions, guilt driven hallucinations, and a tragic downfall into a tedious, insignificant drama with beautiful stylistic features. Perhaps Kurzel’s emphasis on the technicality of the film was his audition to serve as the director of the much-anticipated video game adaptation for Assassin’s Creed. While he has proven he has an eye for delectable imagery and a penchant for violent butchery, he unfortunately has equally proven that he doesn’t have an ear for poetic language or the mind for deep character contemplation.

Grade: C+

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