So fair and foul a day I have not seen.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015) fully embodies both descriptors, recreating the foulest of deeds with the fairest of performers and photography. Period costuming and armaments appear accurate, era-specific and practical. Minimalist set design and art direction is perfect for nomadic, tribal characters who spend much of the film out of doors or in tents. Few exceptions including a literally haunting, ornate banquet scene and a couple epic battles, but here less is definitely more, as powerful performances are the focal point, though the details fail to disappoint.
The Scotch highlands are painted from a bleak palette, unforgiving yet beautiful, steeped in soft grays and muted blacks under a constant mist of rain, a wash of vivid blue here, a swath of darkening smoke there. As his rage and fear multiply unbounded, apocalyptic events spiral out of Macbeth’s control, and all-encompassing flames, layered as in a graphic novel comprised of collage come to life, as undulating waves of orange, yellow and red engulf the viewer.
This Macbeth has reason to feel fatigued. He’s lost an infant to sickness or reasons unknown. Constant warfare, far from home and in the service of his affectionate King Duncan (an underutilized David Thewlis), has taken its toll, and Macbeth’s world-weariness is apparent. Our story opens with Macbeth and his loyal brother-at-arms, Paddy Considine’s steadfast Banquo—all knowing glances throughout—on the verge of yet another battle. Sean Harris, having carved himself a niche for otherworldly creepiness (Harry Brown, Prometheus) is convincing as noble family man MacDuff. Save these seasoned warriors, we are struck by the pervasive youth of this hardscrabble army of mostly boys, and Macbeth suffers yet another affecting loss.
To varying degrees, as audience-members generally aware of this classic story from the canon of world literature, we’re accustomed to thinking of the titular character and his Lady Macbeth (a luminous Marion Cotillard) as the purest embodiment of murderous ambition itself. Though their love and devotion may be admirable and unique throughout Shakespeare, as Sir Kenneth Branagh, perhaps as well versed on the topic as anyone has argued, we have been conditioned to see these characters as foundational, cautionary figures who stop at nothing to advance their ambitions, surrendering to the seductive lure of power at all costs, signing on for the full ride because after the first horrible act of treason, what’s done is done.
And yet, Kurzel’s take on this classic Shakespearean tragedy approaches the titular character’s motivations slightly off-axis from traditional adaptations, seeing Macbeth as a victim of…wait for it…post-traumatic stress disorder Yes, it may sound like a stretch, but it works. Years of war have left him in a fragile, shell-shocked mental state, exhausted, susceptible to suggestion and persuasion, reeling, overcome by grief and hallucinating. Macbeth earns our sympathy, as much as a fictional murderer is able. In this era of the pervasive antihero, there is plenty of real humanity oozing from a committed Michael Fassbender. His love for his wife is palpable. His heartfelt protectiveness for one young soldier on the battlefield is tender, and his dedication to war in the service of his king is indisputable. His loyalty is real. His friendship is steadfast. Until neither is the case any longer.
Which is not to say that this soon-to-be-hollowed-out Macbeth is beyond reproach early on—that he lacks ambition, that he is not intrigued by the witches (four, this time) and their unprompted prophecy, that he does not feel jealous or wronged as he is usurped by a timid Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and disappointed as he receives what seems to him minor recognition and inferior title. Nor is he unwilling to dive over the precipice and commit the darkest of deeds required of him, this time with what feels like minimal prodding from Lady Macbeth, herself partially responsible and yet far from the unyielding criminal mastermind she has often been portrayed as. Still, she stifles his early attempts to reconsider this foul business with little protest. Their partnership in all things is absolute, their attraction animalistic.
Provoked by apparent supernatural foresight and vulnerable due to a mental state rendered fragile by relentless war and plagued by scorpions, he perceives King Duncan’s slight as greater than it probably is, and a heinous opportunity presents itself in his mind. Augmented and encouraged by his one true love (herself poisoned by loss), the messy business overtakes him swiftly. No spoiler for anyone who knows anything about this story: Macbeth becomes a murderer many times over, achieving his aspirations, but at what cost?
Loaded with sweeping clifftop vistas and intimate candle-lit collusions, Kurzel’s production benefits from striking cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, True Detective) and a mostly understated score by Jed Kurzel (The Babadook).
Anything but a tale told by an idiot, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a memorable adaptation, full of sound and fury, signifying plenty.