It would be hard for me not to be excited about Justin Kurzel’s film version of Macbeth. After all, Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play; it’s all but a horror film already, a dark and gripping tale of madness, murder, dark forces, and brutal violence. More than that, though, it’s a play that doesn’t seem to get made often, and only once – by Roman Polanski – with the results mirroring the play’s greatness. (To be fair, there’s Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but that’s more inspired by Macbeth than a direct telling, so I’m going to leave that out for now. It’s a great piece of cinema, though.) So between the phenomenal casting (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths? Yes, please) and the astonishing looking trailer that promised some jaw-dropping visuals, you could forgive me for being excited.
And man, was I ever not disappointed.
The big complaint I’ve seen with this version is that Kurzel’s preoccupation with violence casts a shadow over the play’s drama, but that seems like a bad argument when it comes to Macbeth, which is a play very much about the cost of violence. This is a play whose central symbol is blood, after all, so Kurzel’s refusal to sugarcoat the violence and carnage only enhances the drama of the play. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the play’s central murder scene, a relentless, intense experience that left me drained and reeling, only for the murders to continue without ever easing the tension. Kurzel is matched beautifully by Fassbender, though, who conveys the emotional agony Macbeth is in every bit as easily as he conveys the madness that gradually dominates his reign as king. This is a man who’s never more comfortable than he is on the battlefield, and for whom every minute away is a moment where he lives with the guilt of what he’s dealt out.
And, of course, there’s Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Taking on one of the most iconic roles in all of Shakespeare is no easy task, but Cotillard is up to it, providing much-needed transitions between her iconic scenes. Indeed, in screenplay nicely fleshes out the play in interesting ways, giving Lady Macbeth more a presence in the second half and more directly staining their hands, especially as it comes to his feud with Macduff. (I also truly loved the film’s take on Birnam Wood’s approach to Dunsinane; it’s a simple idea, but it’s executed perfectly, and turns the film’s finale into a hellish nightmare.)
But more than anything else, the film is anchored by Kurzel’s astonishing visual sensibility, filling the frame with shadowy crosses, burning flames, blood-soaked fields, and weary soldiers who can’t escape the wars they’ve fought. His Scottish landscape is simultaneously beautiful and bleak, feeling chilly and unforgiving – and that’s before the eerie apparition of the witches that so often lurks in the back of the action. It’s a haunting vision, one that’s equal parts beautiful and nightmarish, and often both at the same time.
Macbeth is a brutal, stark, unforgiving piece of cinema, one that looks at one of the Bard’s darkest plays and brings it to grim, hopeless life. It fills its battles with death, makes the murders horrific crimes, makes us feel every crime, and leaves us unsure of whether justice was truly meted out. In other words, it does the play justice, turning it into beautiful cinema that never blinks from the pain and darkness at the core of Shakespeare’s tale. I loved every second of it, and as soon as I’ve had some time to recover from it, I’m ready to take it on a second time.