The first Macbeth to make it to the big screen in decades is gorgeous to look at. Even the bloody battles, where the body counts from swords and daggers pile up -- play out like a beautiful, fevered dream.
Film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s classic story of dark ambition are surprisingly rare. Orson Welles reprised his “voodoo Macbeth” in 1948 that he’d performed onstage to wild reviews a decade earlier, and Roman Polanski gave the violent tragedy its last major whirl in movie theaters in 1971. Enter Australian director Justin Kurzel, whose version, we’re told, is “based on a story by William Shakespeare” since the director, as those before him, chose to take some liberties.
The core of the story, set in the Dark Ages, remains the same: Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), a Scottish nobleman and a favorite of King Duncan, is prophesied by three witches to one day be king. His ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard) hastens that day, leading her power-hungry man to kill Duncan and set them both on a path to become haunted and unhinged.
The film’s departure from the Bard’s telling of the tale, thanks to Kurzel’s work with three screenwriters, begins in the opening scene, with the couple at the funeral of their only child. Their grief and bitterness lays the groundwork for what’s to follow.
In another scene, the strong-willed Lady Macbeth, handcuffed by the limits placed on women, projects her ambitions for power onto her battle-tested but uncertain husband, all but commanding him to find his courage while they’re alone in a church -- and making love.
Fassbender, the German-Irish actor who was in “Steve Jobs,” and before that “12 Years a Slave,” gives a charged performance as the hollow-eyed, tormented king who has slipped into paranoia and delusion. Cotillard, the French actress who won an Oscar in 2007 for “La Vie en Rose,” 2007, is powerfully seductive as the conniving and ambitious Lady Macbeth. Both recite Shakespeare’s necessarily pruned lines, as the toll from the horror and brutality they have ushered in pushes their descent into madness.
The story at times takes a back seat to Adam Arkapaw’s fluid and sensuous cinematography. The camera wanders from breathtaking scenes of misty, snow-capped mountains in Scotland and slo-mo battle scenes with grizzled men and young boys in battle-ready face paint, partly obscured by fog on muddy fields under gray skies. A mesmerizing forest fire drenched in a hellish, blood-red filter consumes the film’s climactic battle scene in an outcome that’s already been forecast.
The film boasts terrific period costumes by Jacquelie Durran, crisp editing and a wonderfully atmospheric score with cellos, chimes and metal sounds from Jed Kurzel, the director’s younger brother.
This adaptation of “Macbeth” is not for the squeamish. The stabbing of Duncan is particularly gruesome, and the gory battle scenes, including throat slashings, are hard to watch.
But the film’s sublime, dreamlike beauty absorbs the deaths as it does justice to Shakespeare’s story of betrayal and blind ambition gone wrong.
STARRING: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard
DIRECTOR: Justin Kurzel
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
RATING: R for gory violence, sexual situations
THE LOWDOWN: Shakespeare’s classic story of an ambitious soldier who, at the prodding of his wife, slays his king to wear the crown, only to descend into madness.