To adapt Macbeth for the silver screen is to walk in the footsteps of giants. Orson Welles in 1948. Akira Kurosawa in 1957. Roman Polanski in 1971. This is the history of the story on film that must be considered. It is unsurprising, then, that it has been 44 years since there has last been a major adaptation of the moody, bloody Shakespeare classic. Now, into this arena of titan steps Justin Kurzel, an Australian upstart director with only one previous feature credit, to once again bring the story of ambition at any cost back into the multiplex.
To mount a venerable play like this begins in the casting room, and Kurzel has done about the best one could expect for his two leads. Michael Fassbender steps into the lead role with Marion Cotillard playing his conniving wife. Beyond his two Oscar-nominated (and winning in the case of Cotillard), Kurzel has also enlisted David Thewlis to play the doomed king Duncan, a frankly unrecognizable Paddy Considine as Macbeth’s cohort Banquo (amazing what a beard and a thick layer of grime can do to hide a well-known face) and Sean Harris and Elizabeth Debicki to play Macduff and his doomed wife. Adaptation duties (the full text of Macbeth can’t exactly fit into two hours, after all) have been handled by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso.
Much of Macbeth can best be described as getting out of Michael Fassbender’s way. With Cotillard playing Lady Macbeth in a less outwardly devious manner than some may come to expect from the role, Fassbender is free to rant and rave and excoriate ghosts with all the fervor the part requires. The Scottish brogue suits him well (though subtitles can almost feel like a necessity at times), and his eyes flash with wild paranoia once his bloody deed has been done. Fassbender is the sort of actor who lives for soliloquy, and he takes on some of Shakespeare’s most familiar and dramatic speeches with fiery temper. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is more passive, less nakedly ambitious than other actresses have played the role. She is neither the megalomaniac nor the Biblical serpent, characterized perhaps more as an opportunist than anything else. She speaks the poison that convinces Macbeth to forcefully take the crown, but there is a reservedness to her machinations, perhaps to deflect blame, perhaps to set up her ultimate fate in act three. It is a disarming way to take on the role, and a risky one, but Cotillard is the sort of actress who can handle the subtlety with ease. Fassbender and Cotillard together form a formidable bond, the foundation for intrigue in this adaptation.
Beyond the acting, Macbeth is most impressive in its look. With cinematographer Adam Arkapaw at his side, Kurzel has adopted the visual language of horror films to create the mood of Inverness and the surrounding moors of Scotland. Arkapaw tends to frame his shots low to the ground from the distance, with his actors rising up from the dark meadows embraced by a thick, unrelenting fog (imagine the fog trails of Clouds of Sils Maria decided to embolden themselves and take over the world). These characters, caked in dirt, blood and grime, often look more like walking dead than Scottish nobility. Even as the film shifts to more interior sets and the characters clean themselves up a bit, that layer of dirt never entirely goes away, becoming one with Macbeth’s precipitous descent into madness. The battles are shot with flair, one a series of cuts between the opening charge in super slow motion with the frenzy of battle, another bathed in glowing amber light that makes it seem the very world is burning down around them. It makes for a gorgeous, dreamlike (nightmare-like, really) experience that serves to reinforce the themes Kurzel has chosen to highlight. This is a year that has been marked by a bounty of beautiful cinematography, from the chaos of Mad Max: Fury Road to the painterly splendor of The Assassin or Youth to the period nostalgia haze of Carol, and audiences would do well not to leave Macbeth out of the conversation.
Indeed, there is not much to grouse about when considering the merits of the film, but outside of Fassbender, Cotillard and the cinematography, there is not much to highlight either. It can start to drag from time to time, but never stultifyingly so. The other performances are fine, but very much in service to Fassbender and Cotillard. It can at times feel more like a progression of scenes than a story (such is the result of paring down the play), which can get distracting, but it also dissipates after not too long. Macbeth is, put simply, a very good adaptation of the play. It is not the sort of film that will linger in the memory long after its credits roll; perhaps individual scenes or moments will, but not the film as a whole. It is polished and professional, but does not seem to have the ambition to cross the threshold into a higher standard of film. But if that is the only negative one can say about Macbeth, it could have done a lot worse.