Director: Justin Kurzel
Major Players: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine
Out Of Five: 3
It’s Fassbender Month. His Steve Jobs bio-pic closes the London Film Festival on the 18th but, before that, he takes on the meaty title role in the latest cinematic interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
While the original play has a reputation for bad luck, on film it’s fared comparatively well. In 1948, Orson Welles’ version was highly theatrical, with heavy Scots accents, while Polanski’s 1970s re-working focussed on an unusually young Lord and Lady MacB. And, as one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, it’s potentially one of the most cinematic. So put that together with the Man Of The Moment and a cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris, and the omens look good.
The story is familiar, how Scottish lord Macbeth (Fassbender) discovers a prophesy that he’ll not just rise in rank and wealth, but become King of Scotland and “no man of woman born” will be able to unseat him. It starts to become true almost instantly and, encouraged by his wife, his desire for power and feeling of invincibility grow just as fast, with the result that he becomes a bloodthirsty tyrant. But rebellion is on the way from south of the border ……
This version gets off to an arresting start, the funeral of the Macbeths’ little boy. There’s always been speculation as to why the couple don’t have any children and here it’s explained from the outset, positioned as just as much a catalyst for their ambitions as the appearance of the three weird sisters. It’s a powerful image and one of many in a film that has a distinctive visual style. There’s the stark, unforgiving landscape with its snow and low grey and mauve clouds. The constant mist, often used to good effect as characters disappear in and out of it, ghost-like. And the majesty of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, glowering over its beach, a location that was also used by Polanski.
But director Justin Kurzel seems to be so hand in glove with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw that the emphasis soon becomes all about the visual, skewing the overall effect. Scratch this film and there’s little below. And what’s there is strangely sterile.
Inevitably some liberties are taken with the play, and there are times when it’s creative: the murder of Macduff’s wife and children isn’t what you’d expect and is all the more effective for it. But the treatment given to Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane shows just how the guts have been taken out of the story in favour of the visuals. Here the army is concealed by smoke from a blazing wood which turns the landscape red, a clumsy backdrop for the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris) and an equally clumsy representation of all the blood shed by the tyrant.
The original text doesn’t fare much better. Shakespeare’s plays were written for a stage that had little or no scenery, so they’re full of passages creating images in the audience’s mind. They’re not needed in a film, so a lot of them go, but some are still there and just state the obvious. It doesn’t make sense.
Kerzel has chosen his cast well and then done them a disservice in the way he’s used them. Fassbender delivers much of his blank verse in something close to a blank voice, or at least a monotone. Thankfully his manic grin makes it pretty clear that he’s a damaged individual, as do those intense eyes. And much the same goes for Marion Cotillard, although facially she’s more subtle, with ill-disguised horror in her eyes when she realises what a monster she’s created in her husband. Yet the supporting actors have been given the freedom to make a bigger impression. Paddy Considine’s Banquo is a man of few words who, after meeting the “weird sisters”, stares at Macbeth with a combination of reproach and warning. The often underrated Sean Harris’ Macduff is loyal at the outset but there’s a fire underneath which erupts when his family is murdered. His eyes almost literally burn with anger and grief.
Macbeth should be full of tension and sinister witchcraft, but there’s little of that here. All the scenes and speeches that you’d expect to see remain, but they’re just sandwiched together with lengthy landscape shots. This Macbeth isn’t really Macbeth at all. It’s handsome and soaked in blood but, in terms of the spirit of the play, it’s remarkably bloodless. And something of a disappointment.
Macbeth is released in cinemas on Friday, 2 October and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 1 October.