Hell is murky and so is Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, a 2015 film that is of course based on William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Tackling the Bard for the screen is always a bit of an event because it gives actors plenty of meat to chew on and provides for more than a few knowingly unrestrained performances.
Kurzel’s picture is bloody and muddy, which may or may not serve as preparation for his upcoming Assassin’s Creed. The actors perhaps also put in some work for the impending video game adaptation. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard feature in Macbeth and will star in Assassin’s Creed, suggesting that the thick grounds of Skye have more than a few spirits beneath.
This movie opens with Macbeth (Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Cotillard) mourning the loss of their child. Macbeth has been leading troops for King Duncan (David Thewlis) and is victorious when three Weird Women approach and hail him a both a Thane of Cawdor and a forthcoming king. Lady Macbeth hears of the prophecies and urges her husband to kill the king to expedite the process.
Macbeth does so and the dead king is discovered by Macduff (Sean Harris). Macbeth is named the King of Scotland after the heir to the throne (Jack Reynor) flees. But the new king has no heirs, which means the crown will pass down to Banquo (Paddy Considine) and his sons as per the Weird Women. Macbeth subsequently targets Banquo, continuing his murderous ways until Macduff catches on.
Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw construct a world doused in blood and fire. They use a gradually-changing colour palette to prod the carnage, coating the opening scenes in cloudy doom and ultimately filtering to a goopy red. Along the way, scenes move through patches of forbidding fog and dark, blowy quagmires.
There is no doubting the divine value of Scotland as the backdrop for this tale of ambition and violence. As much as the viscera of castles and tents represent eerie prisons for the Macbeths, the outside world provides too many places for blame to hide. They become realms of watching, waiting skies – and Lady Macbeth can take no more.
Kurzel succeeds at painting a world of intuitive guilt and horror and he seems entirely invested in the passion behind the tragedy. He pulls the audience beyond the loyally theatrical performances, which are rendered with skill and might, and yearns for a bodily experience of Shakespeare’s tale of the hunt of power for power’s sake.
The Bard’s shortest tragedy charts the course from divination to slaughter to suspicion to paranoia, but it also suggests a land visited by its own sins. It proposes a certain medieval autocracy, like decent order has been dislocated by pushy royal forces. In that sense, Macbeth is less about what drives Macbeth and more about what drives all things.
If that’s the outlook, it’s safe to say that Kurzel forges convincing fire. By pushing the Weird Women to the sidelines as appealing prophets rather than Shakespeare’s doubly-troubled witches, he nudges the moral blame and suggests a wider paradigm of power-seekers doing what power-seekers do.
There is a decided bend to this Macbeth that settles the redundancy of spectacle in Shakespearean adaptations. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth madly steamroll everyone and anyone in their way to the throne and all its glory, giving lie to a more obvious but no less persuasive view of ambition. That their path is literally squelched along by Jed Kurzel’s score seems to underline the point.
There will be those who prefer their Shakespeare left the hell alone. And there will be those who understand the medium of cinema and its many gifts when it comes to recreating treasured works. Those in the latter camp may enjoy Kurzel’s adaptation. Those in the former will pick apart accents, enunciations, obligatory syllables, and so on. That’s fine.
Macbeth is an engaging piece of work. This is a film of guts and heart. It moves like blood through the veins. And it affirms, with proud blasts of crimson and fire, that “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”