The atmosphere is the real star of this new screen version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, in which even Michael Fassbender’s ambitious thane and Marion Cotillard’s manipulative Lady Macbeth—as well as the Bard’s text—play second fiddle to the graphic-novel mood of gloom, blood and fatalism favored by director Justin Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. The result is not without its impressive moments, but like so many of the earlier screen adaptations, this “Macbeth” falls short.
One intriguing element of the much-edited screenplay fashioned by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie is its emphasis on father-son relationships. The play alludes to Lady Macbeth’s having given birth, but Kurzel’s film expands on that by beginning with a scene in which the couple presides over the funeral of an infant, presumably theirs, and then spotlighting the death of an older boy—either Macbeth’s older son or a favored squire to whom he’s become a surrogate father—in the initial battle sequence. Later the film makes a point of placing special focus not only on Duncan (David Thewlis) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor), but on Banquo (Paddy Considine) and young Feance (Lochlann Harris), the lad who here takes up the sword of vengeance at the very close. It also takes pains to show us the fiery execution of Macduff’s (Sean Harris) children along with his wife (Elizabeth Debicki).
The fire motif is also an element of the red hue that Kurzel and Arkapaw add to the final reel: they have Macduff set the timbers his soldiers are carrying from Birnam Wood aflame. That might not make much sense in the context of the narrative, wherein the branches are intended to conceal the approaching invaders, but it certainly does exhibit extravagant visual flair.
These are interesting interpretive touches, but this “Macbeth” is, despite its love of gore and swordplay (though, to be sure, it doesn’t match Polanski in that respect), mostly a grimly lugubrious, and not terribly compelling, affair. One can understand Kurzel’s desire to avoid the sort of declamatory style that Orson Welles brought to his threadbare 1948 film (or Olivier would surely have brought to his, had he made one—Branagh probably will when he gets around to it), but the solution he’s adopted—of having a good deal of the text whispered or mumbled, often against montages of extraneous visuals—has the effect of muting its effect. (Another choice, in which one of the most famous soliloquies is delivered straight into the camera, as if it were the equivalent of an interview, doesn’t work much better.) The result is a version of “Macbeth” that comes across as a prolonged dirge interrupted occasionally by spurts of action—mostly at beginning and end, though at a few points in between as well.
Nor do the cast make up for the directorial choices with overpowering performances. Fassbender brings a leonine gruffness to Macbeth, but doesn’t capture the character’s emotional descent following the death of Duncan in much more than a generalized way, and his recitation of the dialogue has little poetry. Cotillard is similarly hampered by Kurzel’s vision. She’s very good in the scene showing her cunningly covering up the evidence of her husband’s guilt in Duncan’s death, and is aided by the addition of situating Lady Macbeth as a witness to the killing of the Macduff clan. But while she registers strength in the sequence in which her husband sees Banquo’s ghost during a celebratory feast, her later scenes—even her big mad moment—are less persuasive. The remaining cast is good without bringing any special insight.
In fact, throughout Kurzel appears less interested in the actors than the settings in which they’re placed. He and Arkapaw certainly employ the Scottish locations to good effect, fashioning windswept vistas that emphasize the unforgiving harshness of the environment. And Ely Cathedral is an imposing stand-in for Macbeth’s castle. Fiona Crombie’s production design, Nick Dent’s art direction and Alice Felton’s set decoration are all excellent, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran has provided garb that adds a touch of imagination to authenticity.
But in the end the film has the feel of being more Kurzel’s “Macbeth” than Shakespeare’s. One could make the same observation about Welles’s and Polanski’s versions (or Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” of course), but in each of those cases there are more compensatory elements than one finds here.