Justin Kurzel’s free-handed and visceral adaptation of “the Scottish play” is sure to irritate the hell out of English Lit. majors and Shakespeare purists; it’s also incredibly entertaining, visually stunning, and perfectly drenched in mud, blood, and madness.
The story of the ambitious Scottish noble who murders his way to power at the prediction of a group of witches and encouragement of his power-hungry wife is well-known and arguably well-worn. Kurzel and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso avoid playing it safe with this take on the material. Gone are some of the play’s more well-known scenes yet arguably superfluous scenes, and added are scenes that were only previously described in speeches in the stage play and more strict film adaptations, such as the pitched battle that opens the story and the murder of Macduff’s family. More obvious changes include expanding the “weird sisters” from three to five, ranging from an infant to an aged crone — arguably five aspects of one woman, and implied to be a figment of Macbeth’s tortured mind.
Michael Fassbender is in his element as the titular thane, a brilliant piece of casting given his knack for playing ruthless and/or unhinged characters in everything from The Counselor and recent X-Men movies to Steve Jobs and Frank. He’s mentioned in interviews that he approached Macbeth from the point of view of a man suffering from PTSD, which makes the man’s disintegration feel all too real. His wife’s (Marion Cotillard) own descent into insanity — a thoroughly tired theater trope — is delivered with a quite slow burn by the actress that is intense without being histrionic. Cotillard is so exact and intuitive in the role that it’s easy to forget that English isn’t her native tongue, and she makes Lady Macbeth surprisingly sympathetic.
The sprawling, often dreamlike cinematography by Adam Arkapaw is beautiful and often surreal, especially in the fiery orange- and red-drenched finale, and his photography of the overcast Scottish moors, highlands, and coastlines has a certain dreary beauty. The score, by the director’s brother Jed Kurzel, his equally haunting, full of wailing strings and pipes, and thumping drums.
Unlike other Shakespearean film adaptations, Macbeth never feels stage-bound or confined. It’s a tale told with sound and fury, and one that signifies quite a lot.