Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most gruesome tragedies, and tackling it onscreen is no small feat. For this new adaptation, director Justin Kurzel has taken the play and — with help from a trio of screenwriters and an insanely talented cast — given it a brilliant and brutal adaptation for the 21st century. Its thudding score, rolling Scottish brogues, and relentlessly foggy moors might leave you exhausted and perhaps close to madness yourself by the time the blood red credits roll, but it’s not like this cursed play has ever been easy to access.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are perfectly cast as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, alongside Paddy Considine as Banquo, David Thewlis as the doomed King Duncan, and Sean Harris as Macduff. Kurzel alternates between magnificent wide takes of the moors, close-ups of the characters’ scarred, tormented faces, and woozy handheld shots alternating with slow-motion for battle scenes.
The first shot of the entire movie establishes exactly what kind of world we’re entering. It’s a coldly beautiful overhead view of a dead toddler on a bed of kindling, surrounded by people in rough-hewn black fabric. The child is — was — the progeny of Macbeth and his wife, whose faces are stricken with grief as they pay their last respects before the pyre is lit. This small detail, that the Macbeths aren’t just lacking an heir, but mourning a dead child, offers a new thrust to their ascent to power and madness, and adds an even more chilling resonance to the marriage of death and birth that are threaded throughout the story.
Kurzel and his writers also choose to show the battle alluded to in the beginning of the play, which helps drive home Macbeth’s increasingly fragile state of mind. Painted like Pict warriors, Macbeth and Banquo lead a ragtag army of young soldiers in gruesome swordplay, and in between shots of carnage, Macbeth sees haunting figures in the mist watching from the sidelines. Shakespeare’s weird sisters get a pagan twist as a trio of maiden, mother with baby, and grey-haired crone, with the addition of a sad-faced young girl whose presence echoes that of Banquo’s son and Macduff’s murdered babes. The specter of dead, undead, or soon-to-be-dead children haunt Macbeth, as do power and sex. Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to murder Duncan during a heated tryst in a church, and later Macbeth, in the throes of drunken madness, points a knife at her belly and possibly — it’s just off screen — slips the knife under the hem of her white dress.
Cotillard is a formidable presence, but there’s a vulnerability here that the character doesn’t always offer; her chilly detachment could also be the product of grief. Sometimes she’s lit like the Virgin Mary, by the backdrop of the murky skies of Scotland or countless church candles, but she can also be cold and flat, like her eyes when Macbeth crumples in her arms post-orgasm. Fassbender, of course, is a perfect match, both in madness and in beauty, with her pallid skin against his ruddy beard, and her giant, clear eyes versus his tormented, shadowed ones. Kurzel’s use of natural light — whether it’s the murky skies of Scotland or countless candles in the Macbeths’ tiny church — underscores just how unforgiving the environment is; the landscape is muddy and raw, faces are scarred, and despite the prominently lit cross in some scenes, there’s a whiff of Celtic paganism about the whole affair. Jed Kurzel, who also scored Slow West, The Babadook, and brother Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, accentuates the madness perfectly.
What’s especially stunning about this assured adaptation is that it’s Kurzel’s second feature, after the stomach-turning Snowtown. (Admittedly, I turned that one off after the second time a young boy is raped onscreen, so maybe after 20 minutes?) His next project is Assassin’s Creed, with Fassbender as protagonist Callum Lynch. Perhaps he’ll also be the first person to make a video game movie that transcends the genre.