Wednesday, December 9, 2015

New movie review: Macbeth

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in director Justin Kurzel's Macbeth.

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth may be one of the five or 10 best literary works ever written. Contained within its tale of greed, corruption, madness, guilt, vengeance, and sorrow is just about every element of modern drama. The Scottish Play is simply staggering in its depth of insight into human character and the machinations of evil, while at the same time being one of Shakespeare’s most accessible pieces. The language is high-minded but quotable, and the story moves like a locomotive, shifting seamlessly from big action to subtle emotion.

Mind you, this is all on the page in Shakespeare’s words, which have little changed in the 400 years since they were first performed. For filmmakers looking to adapt the Bard’s work, the process can be something of a litmus test. Great directors will find something new in these old masterpieces and infuse the work with energy, style, and originality such as Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, itself a Macbeth adaptation. On the other hand, bad directors fail this test, either by slavish adherence to the text or by misunderstanding its inherent greatness.

Happily, director Justin Kurzel’s new imagining of Macbeth falls to the positive side of that spectrum. A moody, atmospheric showcase for a uniformly stellar cast, Kurzel presents a world that has turned into hell and is populated by a thousand little demons fighting to be the devil. By going darker and quieter than the text suggests, Kurzel and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso downplay the action and political maneuvering in order to highlight the despair and sorrow that result.

The opening battle, though exquisitely photographed by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, is not depicted as a gloriously waged war but rather as an anonymous slaughter. Hidden in fog and caked in mud and blood, the living and the dead alike seem to sink into the earth. It is in this place, hovering between life and death, that Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) first spies the Weird Sisters who will set him on a doomed path of mayhem and destruction.

He is told he will be thane of Cawdor, a prediction that quickly proves true. He is told he will be king of Scotland, which at the urging of wife Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) he makes true through murder. However, he is also told it will be his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) whose sons will be kings, and from this looming prophecy, Macbeth’s paranoia and madness grow until he unleashes a furious plague of death and terror on all those who stand in his way.

Cotillard in Macbeth.
Throughout the film, Kurzel displays a fantastic feel for the momentum of the story, expertly picking his spots to go big and flashy but smartly pulling back and letting the characters speak for themselves when the moment calls for it. Macbeth, the play and film, is filled with visions of ghosts and unimaginable horrors, but Kurzel’s restraint means that when he finally unleashes his ghastly imagery, the full visceral and emotional impact is felt.

However, the film is more than just its gorgeous tableaux as Kurzel and his screenwriters demonstrate a complete understanding of the tragedy of Shakespeare’s story. In an opening scene that is the invention of the filmmakers, the Macbeths lay to rest their dead child, creating a perfectly judged subtext for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that informs their actions for the rest of the plot. They are consumed by a quest for control. Determined not to let fate, which took their only child, dictate their destinies, their final tragedy is the realization that it was fate all along that led them to this place.

I said back in August when I named Macbeth among my most anticipated movies of the fall that one of its chief draws would be to watch two of the greatest characters ever written portrayed by two of the best actors of their generation. Fassbender and Cotillard do not disappoint and in fact exceed all reasonable expectations. They are shockingly good in roles that require madness and cunning, fury and tenderness, confidence and fear.

Fassbender is easily the best Macbeth since Toshirô Mifune in Throne of Blood, which Fassbender has said in interviews is his favorite Macbeth adaptation. One of the best things about this performance is the consistency Fassbender finds at the core of the character. Macbeth is a madman from the beginning, but a madman wielding a sword on the battlefield is a different beast from one wielding a crown in a kingdom. By tapping into the underlying threat of insanity throughout, Fassbender shows how it is not power that drives Macbeth mad but instead guilt that tears away at his soul.

Cotillard deftly handles the arguably trickier task of playing the woman who sets in motion this terrible chain of events but whose soul cannot bear the carnage she has wrought. Even apart from the fact English is not her first language, Cotillard demonstrates a facility for Shakespeare’s words that rivals that of the great Shakespearean actors.

It is a brilliant, show-stopping moment when Cotillard delivers the famous “Out damn spot” speech, which Kurzel chooses to shoot almost entirely in a single, extreme close-up. Before our very eyes, Cotillard transforms Lady Macbeth from just another demon possessed by avarice into a weary shell of a woman who can no longer bear the thought of how hollow she is. Cotillard is a gifted performer who takes an already great sequence and turns it into a scene for the ages.

All of this builds to an epic conclusion in which Macbeth’s actions have transformed his world into a literal inferno – a bit of poetic license the filmmakers take to bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill. Everything he built and everything he cherished, he has burned it all to the ground. He mounts one final charge against the forces of fate, but surrounded by the ash and rubble of a shattered world, he must confront the truth. His destiny was decided long ago.

See it? Yes.

No comments: