Scotland’s bleak mountains seem to sigh in mournful resignation when Macbeth begins reaching for the throne with gore-soaked hands. The general has spilled blood before — artful splashes captured in stop-and-go slo-mo in service of the king — but the violence to come is best expressed by a crimson sunset and the soundtrack’s wheezing dirges. The land has seen all this before, it seems to say, and it’s helpless to stop the doom that awaits.
The latest adaptation of “Macbeth” is as much a directorial work as it is William Shakespeare‘s. Justin Kurzel (“The Snowtown Murders”) injects fresh blood — and lots of it — to his cinematic translation of the 400-year-old play through astute casting, adrenaline-fueled action, gorgeously portentous landscapes and, perhaps most excitingly, new contexts for familiar soliloquies. We should all be so lucky to have this majestically raw picture become the new standard for screen adaptations of The Bard.
Star Michael Fassbender delivers his second award-worthy performance of the year as Macbeth. A study in coiled psychosis, he’s terrifyingly unable to leave his weapons behind on the battlefield, especially after a trio of eerily calm women prophesize that he’ll be king. (Scarred but otherwise starkly unadorned in face and dress, the witches unsettle mainly with their serene, deliberate gazes. The script — credited to Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso — smartly jettisons the now-borderline-campy “double, double toil and trouble” scene.) Macbeth’s close-and-impersonal murder of his liege (David Thewlis) turns out to be but a prelude, for Macbeth knows of no way of keeping his crown save murdering anyone who dares look at it.
Also luring the once-loyal general to take the path of unrighteousness is his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), remade here as a glamorous snake. Her ivory head and stretched neck poking out of doleful shrouds, Lady Macbeth is a vision of both temptation and overreaching. She’s touching, too, as when she valiantly attempts to wrest back control of a crowded banquet hall as her husband starts menacing the ghost of an ally (Paddy Considine) he’s had killed.
Fassbender manages to find the psychological throughline that makes Macbeth’s increasing mental deterioration — a development that can feel overly formalistic, not to mention moralistic — wholly convincing. Still, the best scenes are when Fassbender and Cotillard are together, their characters’ marriage fueled by a mutual and erotically-charged ravenousness for power and the undeniable sexual failure of their childless union, which means that Macbeth’s royal line will end with his death. When Macbeth points a dagger at his wife’s belly, it foreshadows all the rage and ruthlessness — not to mention the sheer want — the new king will have to muster to maintain his slippery grip on the throne.
For the most part, Kurzel manages to juggle the play’s thematic density while hewing close to the film’s selective realism: natural light, teenage soldiers, psychological verisimilitude. (Once you’ve seen an unhinged Macbeth holed up in his private chambers and running around his bed in circles, you’ll wonder why you’ve never seen that before.) But here’s the rub: Unless you’ve read “Macbeth” recently, the subtleties of the dialogue just might get lost in the actors’ true-to-life (i.e., not overly enunciatory) delivery of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.
Still, “Macbeth” is reimagined with so much verve and originality that it’s difficult not to wonder how Kurzel will fare when he reunites with Fassbender and Cotillard in next year’s “Assassin’s Creed,” the big-screen adaptation of the popular video-game series. If there’s anyone who can finally make a video-game movie worth watching, Kurzel’s proven — with Shakespeare’s help — that it’s him.