Awards Profile: Macbeth

Macbeth Featured
They may take our lives, but they can nev-whoops, wrong movie…

Welcome to the 2015 Awards Profiles series. For the next two months, every day (except for Saturday), we will bring you a run down of a future 2015 film that we see as a potential awards vehicle for next year’s Academy Awards. This is all speculative since with just about all these films, we haven’t seen a frame yet. Nonetheless, we venture on. If you miss a film, then click on the tag “2015 Awards Profile.”


Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Reynor and Paddy Considine

Synopsis: Spurred on by a prophecy of the power he could wield if he were King, an army general murders the King of Scotland and takes the throne. But his guilt, and that of his wife, may prove to be their undoing.

Why it might succeed:

Whenever I’m reminded of it, I often forget that The Snowtown Murders was Justin Kurzel’s debut feature. The result of such a level-headed yet unflinching look inside the cult of personality John Bunting cultivated among a gang of desperate, broken youths was one of, in my opinion at least, the very best films of 2012…if also one of the most upsetting and disturbing of recent years. I would have thought a director with that as their big debut might have a difficult time securing a new project, no matter how apparent their talents. But it seems like the motion picture business can still offer some genuine surprises, and someone decided that he would be the best person to tackle a new version of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth.

For those of you who struggle to recall AP English Lit, Macbeth tells the story of a Scottish military leader who hears a prophecy that he will become the King of Scotland, but the next king will not be his descendant but that of his colleague Banquo. With the, ahem, “encouragement” of his wife, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth murders King Duncan, takes the throne, and hatches a plot to kill Banquo and his sons to deny the second part of the prophecy. A bloodthirsty paranoia soon consumes him, plunging his kingdom into civil war and losing everything before his own death at the hands of MacDuff.

It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays that virtually everyone “knows” even if they’ve never personally seen or read it, and as a result it’s been adapted a number of times already. But this version is arguably the most ambitious version ever attempted, being midwifed by Oscar-winning producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman with a hefty budget and serious Hollywood names attached to the project. The most visible, of course, being its two stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the scheming couple.

Fassbender has been attached to this project from the very beginning, back when he was not campaigning for what eventually became his first Academy Award nomination for 12 Years a Slave. The murderous Scottish king is a character that anyone would relish, and on paper suits many of Fassbender’s strengths as an actor. In addition, his collaboration with Kurzel was so fruitful that he effectively pushed for him to take the helm on the upcoming film adaptation of the bestselling video game Assassin’s Creed. That’s no small gesture; Fassbender has been one of the driving forces of the Assassin’s Creed film and his passion for it strongly suggests he’s looking to move beyond the X-Men series and make this his franchise ticket. Entrusting Kurzel with directing duties indicates that he was highly impressed with his handling of Macbeth, and Fassbender would know what a confident director looks like – he’s worked with several major filmmakers in the past.

Cotillard and Fassbender
The original power couple.

Marion Cotillard will play the part of his wife after scheduling conflicts forced Natalie Portman to drop out. Cotillard is riding high off her second Academy Award nomination this year, and Lady Macbeth is one of the most well-regarded roles ever written for an actress. And just like director Kurzel, she’s also been wooed into Assassin’s Creed by Fassbender, suggesting a very positive chemistry between the three. The only question mark at this point is whether she’ll be campaigned as a lead or supporting role. It’s not necessarily an issue of category fraud, either – despite her regard in the world of theater, Lady Macbeth is not as prominent a presence in the play as you’d think and very likely will be seen as a legitimate borderline case depending on how faithfully it’s adapted. The promotional materials so far suggest a clear two-hander between the power-hungry spouses, but those could be misleading and Weinstein may end up ignoring whatever the reality of the part is and just campaign her for wherever he thinks she’ll be most competitive. We won’t really know for sure until the film’s release.

While Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are by far the two most notable roles of the play, they are hardly the only worthy characters. English actor Sean Harris will play the part of Macduff, Macbeth’s nemesis and the figure of integrity in a story filled with betrayal and greed. He hasn’t quite broken out in the United States the way he has in his native U.K. (the most notable American film on his resume is as the disastrously stupid geologist Fifield in Prometheus). A Best Supporting Actor nomination for standing up to Macbeth would quickly change that.

The film has also wrangled serious talent below-the-line as well. True Detective cinematographer Adam Arkapaw serves as DP, and early production stills indicate a visually stunning and gothic feast for the eyes at the very least. He’ll be lighting the sets of production designer Fiona Crombie, who will be working on her largest scale yet after her unsettling depiction of the impoverished rural areas of Salisbury North in The Snowtown Murders. Oscar-winning editor Chris Dickens will be cutting the film, and Oscar-winner Jacqueline Durran will be providing the costumes. All of them should be considered serious contenders for nominations even if the film itself falls short of expectations.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign of Macbeth’s awards chances lies with The Weinstein Company picking up distribution rights. Being backed by the most aggressive and successful awards campaigner in the business is a good sign that the film will at least be a serious presence on the awards beat when the season heats up later this year. All he has to do now is convince Fassbender to put aside his discomfort over awards campaigning and hit the trail again…

Why it might not:

You know the one factor that could render this movie’s awards chances D.O.A.? “Based on the play by William Shakespeare.” The last Shakespeare adaptation to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture was Franco Zeffirelli’s popular version of Romeo and Juliet…in 1968. Others have come close – Ran earned Akira Kurosawa his only Best Director nomination and Henry V netted Kenneth Branagh the first two nominations of his career – but for the most part the Bard seems to have mostly fallen out of favor with the Academy. Exploring why that is could be an entire article in itself, but the point here is that Justin Kurzel and writers Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso (none of whom have had any significant experience as screenwriters) are going to have to do something special to make this version of the Macbeth play stand out.

And it’s very likely that Kurzel and his team do have something special in mind for their version of Macbeth, but it may not be to the Academy’s liking. Macbeth is a disturbing, depressing tale of pride, betrayal, murder, guilt, and obsession. A story like that in the hands of the man who scarred audiences with The Snowtown Murders could simply end up too upsetting an experience for Academy voters to fully embrace.

Also, in case you weren’t keeping track, an Australian director is helming an adaptation of an English play about a Scottish monarch headlined by a German-Irish actor and a French actress. Look, I’m about as cosmopolitan as anyone; cultural melting pot and all that but…that’s weird, right? Let’s hope that doesn’t result in something too discordant.

Macbeth is tentatively set for release later this year.

Oscar Potential:
Picture (Iain Canning, Laura Hastings-Smith and Emile Sherman)
Director (Justin Kurzel)
Adapted Screenplay (Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso)
Lead or Supporting Actress (Marion Cotillard)
Lead Actor (Michael Fassbender)
Supporting Actor (David Thewlis and/or Sean Harris)
Supporting Actress (Elizabeth Debicki)
Original Score (Jed Kurzel)
Cinematography (Adam Arkapaw)
Film Editing (Chris Dickens)
Production Design (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton)
Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran)
Makeup and Hairstyling
Sound Mixing (Gilbert Lake and Steve Single)
Sound Editing (Steve Single)