Whether you’ve seen it in the theatre, watched a television or film adaptation or studied it at school, the work of William Shakespeare is a quintessential part of British culture, and no play of his is more iconic than Macbeth. In the latest cinema outing for ‘The Scottish Play’, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel directs. Following a brutal battle, the warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) receives a prophecy from the Three Witches, who tell him he will one day be the King of Scotland. His wife Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), then hatches a plan, taking matters into her own hands to speed up their monarchical ascent. This leads to a psychological power struggle as his friendship with Banquo (Paddy Considine) is tested, and his controlling behaviour results in conflict with Macduff (Sean Harris). This reimagining tells the story from a slightly new angle, on a glorious Skye backdrop.
A lot of modern takes on Shakespeare could be described as being loosely based on the original text, using creative licence to update the dialogue in order to increase the wideness of the appeal. Kurzel’s version refuses to tamper with the wordsmith’s distinct and instantly recognisable material, which makes it challenging to follow at times, and offers little opportunity to indulge in the spoken word. The visuals have a clear narrative though, and are bold and ambitious in the use of colour and choice of frenetic editing, most notably in the brave implementation of slow-motion and time lapse techniques in the dramatised battleground scenes.
Performances are strong throughout, with both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard revelling in their delivery of hard-hitting soliloquies as their characters descend into depression and despair, unable to cope with the haunting of their dark pasts. Fassbender is no stranger to complex and complicated portrayals so its no surprise how well suited he is to the famous eponymous part. Placing emphasis on Lady Macbeth’s post-traumatic-stress disorder adds weightiness and depth to Cotillard’s turn, and cleverly makes her character more relatable and accessible to the audience. Considine gives solid support as Macbeth’s right hand man Banquo, carrying off the role with integrity as well as brooding intensity.
‘Macbeth’ works as both a celebration and an enhancement of the tragic play, and successfully tows the line between Shakespearean tradition and contemporary cinema. Justin Kurzel tells the classic story in a way that felt fresh by modernising the aesthetics and including big sequences of blockbuster-esque action in between the slower, wordier acts of the piece. He’s due to work with both Fassbender and Cotillard again in the upcoming adaptation of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, and he certainly knows how to get the very best from his talented leads. Until then though, ‘All Hail Macbeth’.