Mark Reviews Movies

Macbeth (2015)

MACBETH (2015)

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Justin Kurzel

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, David Thewlis, Kayla Fallon, Lynn Kennedy, Seylan Baxter, Scot Greenan

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and brief sexuality)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 12/4/15 (limited); 12/11/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2015

Director Justin Kurzel's adaptation of William Shakespeare's Scottish play immediately establishes itself as a movie far less concerned with words than it is with action. Macbeth is the cinematic equivalent of an actor attempting to convey an understanding of a Shakespeare soliloquy by reciting it as quickly as possible.

On that note, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso's screenplay does give us the big soliloquies and speeches, although they feel more like an obligation. Everybody with even a passing knowledge of the Bard knows that Macbeth is going to talk about an imaginary dagger and that Lady Macbeth is going to complain about an imaginary bloodstain, so of course this movie must contain those passages because, well, it apparently feels as if it must.

The ways in which Kurzel presents them, though, are some of the movie's more daring moments. Here, Macbeth (a curiously hushed Michael Fassbender) indeed spots a dagger that draws him toward the bloody murder of Duncan (David Thewlis), the king to whom he had been most loyal, but the blade does not hang from the air.

Instead, it is held by the specter of a young boy (Scot Greenan), who is killed in the movie's opening battle of civil war. In this instance, the "fatal vision" of which Macbeth speaks is as much the child soldier, whose body Macbeth treats to proper funeral rites in a moment that mirrors the movie's opening scene (more on that later), as it is the knife with which the soon-to-be king of Scotland will assassinate his sooner-to-be predecessor.

Later, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) offers her frustration over a "damned spot" that will not out. It's a given that she refers to the blood of Macbeth's many victims, whose murders she unintentionally caused by orchestrating the killing of the king, and one must give credit to Kurzel and the screenwriters for taking the risk of not taking the obvious as a given.

The queen is alone in this version. There is neither a doctor nor a lady-in-waiting offering commentary on their queen's seemingly insane ramblings. Lady Macbeth sits on the floor of a chapel, talking about bloodied hands and victims. She is speaking to someone or something, and in the scene's final moments, Kurzel cuts to a wider shot of the chapel's interior, revealing the ghost of the Macbeths' child, whose face is covered in some form of pox—"damned spot," indeed.

The two most prominent states of mind for the Macbeths are ambition and guilt, and if anything, Kurzel sets out to reinforce the divide between husband and wife in terms of those drives. Macbeth begins guilt-ridden by the even the thought of killing Duncan—a thought placed in his mind by the appearance of three Weird Sisters (Kayla Fallon, Lynn Kennedy, and Seylan Baxter) who prophesize that he will become king. Lady Macbeth begins as the ambitious one, promising that she would have killed the baby she nursed if she had thought it would help her husband achieve his presaged position of power.

The driving forces switch places. Macbeth becomes greedy from the taste of power, plotting murder on the windswept hills of Scotland and the rooms of his Medieval castle (The movie's minimalist locales give it the air of authenticity). Lady Macbeth cannot bear being the cause of her husband's body count, including his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine), his opponents, and their families.

The emotional marker for that shift here is the duo's deceased child, suggested by that one line from Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's text. The screenwriters and Kurzel offer a wordless prologue in which the Macbeths prepare their deceased child for the funeral pyre. The battle that follows, a slow-motion mess of kicked-up dirt and splashing blood, is wordless, too. The movie eventually gets to Shakespeare's words, but perhaps the movie's greatest strength and most limiting weakness is how it relies on visual language to embellish or replace Shakespeare's own language. The latter option—of substitution—is a losing proposal if there ever was one.

The approach works in such moments as the appearance of the ghostly child soldier—Macbeth's guilt leading him to an act of ambition—or the reveal of Lady Macbeth's own child after witnessing the executions of the children of her husband's rival Macduff (Sean Harris). These moments work because they're unexpected and different, forcing us to look at centuries-old, repeatedly produced material in ways that one might not previously have considered.

Less effective are the story's more obvious beats of establishing these characters. During one of Macbeth's soliloquies of doubt, Kurzel intercuts shots of the character looking distressed, including one of him banging his head against a wall. In order to convey that he has gone insane, we see Macbeth twirling his sword and jogging around his chamber. These moments would be unnecessary, save for the fact that Fassbender provides a mostly toothless, whispered performance that almost requires such blatant visual cues to support the character (Cotillard fares much better).

Much the play's content has been reduced or downplayed. The screenplay is streamlined to provide the basics of the plot and the familiar monologues. Macbeth seems to set out to offer a faithful Shakespeare adaptation with as little Shakespeare as is necessary. The movie is more a primer than a full-blooded interpretation.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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