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Macbeth (2015)
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by alejandroariera

"…the Instruments of Darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles…"
4 stars

Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” may not be to everyone’s taste. In fact, at the public screening I attended, more than a dozen people walked out of the theatre within the first half hour. I suspect the dark, gloomy photography and the low-key delivery of the dialogue —not to mention the thick Scottish accents from most of the cast— may have put them off. However, this “Macbeth” is a worthy addition to the cinematic Shakespearean canon. In fact, it has more in common with Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” than with, say, Ralph Fiennes’ fiery “Coriolanus” or Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour, 70mm adaptation of “Hamlet.” Both “Macbeth” and “Chimes at Midnight” are earthy films that treat Shakespeare’s rich language realistically. These characters do not speak in the grandiloquent tones the language seems to demand: the actors in these adaptations whisper or raise their voices when necessary or matter-of-factly, as if they spoke in verse everyday. This approach has its risks: in Kurzel’s case, it sometimes backfires on him, making the dialogue, especially in that first half hour, almost incomprehensible.

Even though the real life Macbeth was a far more benign king than the one portrayed by Shakespeare, Kurzel grounds this adaptation in history, but not the history of facts and figures and events. It’s the portrait of a specific time, a specific place, a specific way of life when Christianity, slowly but surely began to displace the old Pagan ways. This is a “Macbeth” that spends as much, if not more, time outdoors than indoors, where the imposing, gloomy, beautiful, haunting Scottish highlands weigh in the mood and actions of these characters. A “Macbeth” that is still full of witches and ghosts, especially the ghosts of wars past. But don’t expect any cauldrons or potions: these witches are more soothsayers than agent provocateurs.

Like many before them, Kurzel and co-adaptors Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso take liberties with Shakespeare’s text. The first and most important is the opening scene which suggests the reason why Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) are childless in thw play: a burial ceremony where the couple lay their only child to rest. Watching over the scene are the four witches whose prophecies will change their lives. For after defeating the rebellious forces of Macdonwald in battle in the following scene, the witches approach Macbeth and proclaim him thane (lord) of Macdonwald’s lands before they are even granted to him by King Duncan (David Thewlis) as well as predict his ascension to the Scottish throne. The script expeditiously proceeds to tick off the play’s major plot points: Lady Macbeth and her husband plot to kill King Duncan and do so while he sleeps; Macbeth orders the murder of Banquo (Paddy Considine) and his child (who escapes) as well as the murder of Macduff’s (Sean Harris) wife and children after Macduff escapes to England; Lady Macbeth’s eventual descent to madness; and Macbeth’s eventual downfall in the battlefield at the hands of a man “none of woman born”.

Lady Macbeth is more than a Machiavellian figure in this film. She still plays a role in these machinations, but halfway through the film, as she watches Macduff’s wife and children burn in the pyre, you can see in Cotillard’s face the realization that husband and wife have gone too far. Thus the sudden and unexplained descent to madness in past adaptations of the play is here given context by Kurzel and his three writers. She now delivers her “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!” soliloquy to the ghost of her child in the chapel back in Macbeth’s homestead and not indirectly to the doctor and gentlewoman spying on her as it happens in the play. It is, perhaps, the most touching rendition of the scene ever staged and Cotillard delivers it with delicacy and poignancy.

But while Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth repents, Fassbender’s Macbeth is a man who succumbs to and embraces this madness. The reluctant grieving co-conspirator of the first act turns into a man who at times wails at the Universe, in others grins madly as he plans the demise of his rivals or whispers his darker thoughts alone or walks in circles in his bedroom. Scarred and blinded by war and grief, this Macbeth is unwilling to accept the consequences of his actions.

Jed Kurzel’s score for the film is full of moody synthesizers and violins; it creates a dense, grey, ponderous aural cloud that hangs over these proceedings. It’s as oppressive as the foggy, muddy, cold environment. Adam Arkapaw’s photography is equally oppressive: most of the interiors are underlit while the exteriors are shot in pale blues, browns and greys. Sunlight is scarce. And when the Great Birnan wood that surrounds Macbeth’s castle is set on fire by Malcolm’s, King Duncan’s son, army, the screen turns into a fiery red, as if the gates of hell had opened here on Earth to welcome Macbeth.

“Macbeth” ends as daringly as it started, not with the now king Malcolm appointing his men earls, but with a child, in this case Banquo’s son Fleance, walking into the now empty battlefield, picking up Macbeth’s sword and taking it away with him, a stark reminder that the witches’ prophecy has yet to be fulfilled in its entirety. It brings the film full circle: at the beginning, Macbeth’s descendant and potential heir is buried. Now, the son of the man he killed walks off screen into a future that may be as bloody as the present he leaves behind, a future that may make him and his descendants kings not of Scotland but of England.

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originally posted: 12/12/15 02:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/03/16 Darkstar Absolutely amazing! Stunning visuals, beautifully shot, excellent performances by everyone 5 stars
1/08/16 John Stunning gloomy photography. Marion Cotillard's haunting Lady Macbeth owned the film 4 stars
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  04-Dec-2015 (R)
  DVD: 08-Mar-2016


  DVD: 08-Mar-2016

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