Macbeth

October 2, 2015
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth' (2015)
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth' (2015)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is one of the great political dramas. It demonstrates all of Machiavelli’s ideas about attaining and using power, but also explores the moral and psychological consequences of one man’s ruthless pursuit of the crown. Macbeth begins as a loyal retainer whose head is turned by the prophecies of three witches. Goaded on by his ambitious wife he becomes obsessed with attaining his goal at any cost. One part of the prophecy makes him feel invincible, but another aspect induces a sense of paranoia.

As Macbeth progresses in the world his character rapidly degenerates. A brave soldier becomes a bloody tyrant, struggling to retain his sanity in the face of real and imaginary threats. (Let’s hope Malcolm Turnbull does a bit better!)

It’s a story with universal implications, which is why it has survived so many screen adaptations, including Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic, Throne of Blood (1957), and Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 re-imagining of the story as a criminal gang war in Melbourne.

The film is a brave undertaking for Justin Kurzel, the young South Australian director who made such an impact with his debut feature, Snowtown (2011). Violent, dark and claustrophobic, Snowtown was not the kind of movie one wants to watch a second time, but it remains a triumph for a local film industry that has become mired in mediocrity.

To pitch oneself into a story that has already attracted the attentions of directors such as Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Kurosawa, bespeaks a monumental ambition. Kurzel had to be sure he had an original vision and a first-class group of actors. From the outset he had no intentions of producing a faithful version of the play but an imaginative rewriting that incorporates Shakespeare’s great lines while giving a more cinematic turn to the narrative.

As for the cast, it doesn’t get any better than the versatile Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, who combines blue-eyed megalomania with the agonies of a tortured conscience. I’m not convinced Marion Cotillard is ideal for the role of Lady Macbeth, but she is good enough to carry off the impersonation. The other tour-de-force is Sean Harris as Macduff, in a ferocious, brutal, semi-deranged performance that seems to have been dredged up from the bottom of the abyss.

To be blunt, the entire film has a deranged quality. It is almost unbearably bleak and savage, shot in a murky light that symbolises the moral blindness of the lead characters. Kurzel’s version of late medieval Scotland is a wild, blasted wasteland in which everyone walks around caked in grime, with occasional smears of woad and blood. The boundary between savagery and civilisation is very faintly drawn.

The background music, by Kurzel’s brother, Jed, is thin and airy, devoid of the thumping melodrama that a more commercially minded director would require of a score. Braveheart it ain’t.

In this Macbeth the ghosts of dead soldiers keep returning to haunt the usurper’s reveries. Time and again we find ourselves back on a crowded battlefield, as Macbeth tries to decide on a course of action. The three witches – “the weird sisters” – are equally persistent, reappearing at intervals to stoke the inferno of Macbeth’s anxieties.

From the moment he ascends the throne Macbeth starts to unravel. The subterfuge he practised in his rise to power is soon discarded as he becomes too disturbed to play the hero in front of his subjects. Macbeth’s belief in his authority is absolute, but his growing madness forces him into ever more desperate and despotic measures. In his cruelty there is an echo of the barbarism now being practised by groups such as Islamic State, who also believe that power must be reinforced by terror.

Although Macbeth is only 113 minutes long it has a grinding, interminable aspect. Kurzel has captured the lessons and ambiguities of the play, but wrapped them in a visual style that makes one feel trapped in a damp, gloomy dungeon. Once again this is a film most viewers will not want to see twice, but it leaves a powerful impression. Kurzel is establishing a reputation as an auteur with an instantly recognisable style, but when the lights go up it’s a relief to stagger towards the exit.

Macbeth
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Screenplay by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie, Todd Louiso, after a play by William Shakespeare
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki
UK/France/USA, rated MA 15+, 113 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 3rd October, 2015.