AFI Fest Film Review: Macbeth (★★★½)

macbeth poster If it wasn’t an impossibility, William Shakespeare would rise out of his grave and give Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth a standing ovation. Adapting the playwright’s work for the big screen seems easy in theory: construct believable set pieces, hire some thespians with theater backgrounds, and make sure the sound equipment is fully prepared to capture every word of dialogue emphatically enunciated. And yet, time after time we’re provided only a fraction of Shakespeare’s dramatic depth, the director either so devoted to blandly mirroring the text or so egotistical as to assume they’ll improve upon the source material simply because they’re from a modern age. What Kurzel does is widen the scope of Macbeth by breathing cinematic life into it that’s both brutally unrestrained and classically mindful. The second-time director — which is difficult to believe watching such mastery of cinema on display — upholds each division of craftsmanship with the utmost devotion, and most importantly doesn’t forget to leave a lasting impression of his own that will surely signal to the world that a new auteur has arrived…and he’s bloody spectacular.

Kurzel’s stunner of an opening sequence serves as a prequel to Macbeth, the context of which I’ll keep mum for now except to mention how valuable it is in underscoring the shift in psyche of Scotland’s most tragic tyrants. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s spellbinding lens captures 11th century Scotland at its most serenely vulnerable to inner demons that plague mankind. The film wastes no time in turning the grandeur of the land into a violent battle zone where lines are drawn and murder is as common as walking one foot in front of the other. We witness the gruesome carnality of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) on the battlefield, where he is able to defeat King Duncan’s enemies almost single-handedly. After squashing the rebellion of Macdonwald (Hilton McRae) and bringing peace following a hard-fought civil war, former general Macbeth is granted the new title of thane of Cawdor for his exemplary service to king and country. However, the benevolent Duncan (David Thewlis) is unaware that Macbeth was clued into his promotion from three “witches” who prophesied his usurpation of Scotland’s crown. The only caveat to Macbeth’s foresight is the knowledge that his fellow general and friend, Banquo (Paddy Considine), will eventually inherit the throne via his genetic legacy, his son Fleance.

As Macbeth, Fassbender is appropriately menacing but also difficult to hate.
As Macbeth, Fassbender is appropriately menacing but also difficult to despise.

What’s great about this version of Macbeth is that despite its realistic grit factor, there’s still plenty of room for supernatural ambiguity. The three “witches” and their overseer, referred to as Hecate in the play, are as human-looking as any ordinary Scotswoman. The only major differences are their noticeable detachment from the common folk when found in a crowd and the prophesies they spew forth that compel Macbeth and Banquo to tune out all else and listen. Moreover, ghosts of Macbeth’s past continually haunt him and are visibly seen by the audience on numerous occasions, though diegetically no other character can testify to the corporeal validity of their presence. Because there’s no special effect used to differentiate the ghosts from the living, Kurzel brilliantly refuses to sever our mental bond with Macbeth. We see what the mad king sees, and that involuntary perspective is perhaps the most frightening yet intrinsically important aspect of the film. Without internal conflict regarding our own feelings towards the Macbeths, the play’s dramatic significance would instantly evaporate. Kurzel, like Shakespeare, is adamant that anyone can theoretically become as evil as Macbeth since ambition is such a driving motivator for our species. For whatever reason, we aren’t programmed to be complacent — our thirst for more power, privilege, amenities, etc. is unquenchable. Ironically, it’s conscience and the anchor of guilt that ultimately destroy the Macbeths, proving that while we may hunger for a surplus of prosperity, our morality remains indestructible and always has the power to intervene.

Macbeth’s cast is quite gifted across the board, even though some of the characters they inhabit feel a tad interchangeable. Just like in the play, Banquo and Macduff (Sean Harris) are both intelligent men whom oppose Macbeth and see right through his convenient fabrications. The film doesn’t really do much to differentiate the two, which ends up leaving both characters woefully underwritten despite being, you know, the guys we should all be rooting for to end Scotland’s misery. Macduff’s family, however, is put through the George R.R. Martin ringer, effectively delivering a powerful reason for Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) to go even more cuckoo for cocoa puffs than her schizophrenic husband.

A power couple that's deadly, sexy and never less than captivating.
A power couple that’s deadly, sexy and never less than captivating.

Aside from Macbeth’s unparalleled direction by Kurzel, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard especially are astounding in their fresh, nuanced interpretations of two infamous roles. A power duo that surprisingly compels more than repels, you won’t see a stronger balance of head and heart in any film this year. Fassbender unleashes every embroiled emotion you can imagine, scorching each scene with a torrent of paranoia coupled with regret and lust for the endgame. Macbeth’s arrogance stems from his support system and combat prowess, so much that his ego threatens to unravel all the meticulous planning that went into this conspiracy. Fassbender’s likability works in his favor here — we never question why Macbeth was so beloved in the first place…and yet the rage of impatience within Macbeth is quite palpable. Fassbender has no equal when it comes to actors navigating the darkest crevasses of humanity while still maintaining an air of respectability.

I dedicate this last section of my review to Marion Cotillard, who I formally apologize for ever doubting her skills as an actor. Last year, I took her to task for her Academy Award-nominated turn in Two Days, One Night, and though I stand by my just criticisms of said film and performance, I regret not concretely articulating how special I find her to be when paired with a challenging role. By “challenging,” I mean something that’s not her go-to downtrodden archetype. Playing the role of Lady Macbeth is Marion’s fiercest display of talent ever. Her introduction scene in the church, where she verbally rationalizes the need to act quick and resolute lest she and Macbeth aren’t granted another opportunity to seize the Scottish crown, could be an isolated Oscar scene on its own. Thankfully, Cotillard’s chilling dedication to such a cunning yet emotionally accessible woman never subsides, culminating in a performance so riveting that I could have spent hours transfixed by her monologues. Every intonation is specific and layered, every flash of expression a window into the mind of a mad genius, suffocated by sorrow and deep remorse. If something as silly as category fraud prevents Cotillard from scoring a third Oscar nomination, this time in the fitting “Best Supporting Actress” slot, I will be livid. Truly, Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is the definitive version of this character. Together, Cotillard, Kurzel, and screenwriters Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie have evolved the former one-dimensional schemer into an indomitable antihero whose evil isn’t as non-negotiable as we’re led to believe.

Lady Macbeth has never been given this much depth before. Cotillard is, once again, an Oscar contender.
Lady Macbeth has never been given this much depth before. Cotillard is, once again, an Oscar contender.

Doused in hazy reds and aesthetically adherent to the playwright’s dark palette, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth might just be the greatest Shakespeare adaptation to date. The fact that Macbeth can be both sexy and visually intoxicating in spite of its depressing atmosphere says a great deal about how the beauty of art needn’t take a backseat to tone or plot. When we’re so transfixed on one expected aspect of a film, we miss all the surprising elements that enhance the ways in which stories can be approached. Be forewarned: Macbeth’s greatness might not reveal itself until after several viewings, its near indecipherable dialogue and thematic abundance likely less frustrating to absorb upon repeat. Nonetheless, Kurzel knows how to craft an epic experience that’s inviting if at times self-congratulatory. I’d much rather have a director whose overconfidence resulted in a masterpiece than one too timid and risk-averse to even turn their imagination into celluloid reality.

The Weinstein Company’s Macbeth had its west coast premiere this week at AFI Fest and will hit theaters across the country beginning December 4th, 2015. I cannot wait to embark on this epic journey again. You’ll find the film’s official trailer below.