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Macbeth review: essential cinematic Shakespeare

October 6, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Dominic Preston


This vital, brilliant film is a courageously original interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The imagery is stark, brutal and gorgeous. Scotland is shown off in all its beautifully green and misty glory whilst the battles scenes are gruesome, dark, muddy and dirty.

In the post-Peckinpah, post-Woo, post-MTV, post-Matrix, post- Snyder, post- Bay world, slow motion has become an overused and tired cliché, but director Justin Kurzel breathes new life into it. This is a gorgeously shot film. Kurzel uses slow motion like a painter, cross-referencing the beautiful ultra-slow-mo with scenes of barbaric, visceral combat. The images hold still as we are invited to behold them and are filled with detail and atmosphere, before it suddenly cuts to movement and then back again. Like the play, this is a violent story, and at no point does Kurzel shy away from this violence (much like his previous film Snowtown), but allows it to frame this reading of Macbeth. If this is anything to go by then we have much to look forward to from its Australian director.

Fassbender gives us an iconic Macbeth that deserves all the accolades (if there is any justice) that it will be garlanded with. This is an external, balls out, full throttle Macbeth. This warrior with a thousand-yard stare is suffering quite serious PTSD which makes his violent acts seem as instinctual on the battle field as they are when he murders close friends and allies to get to the crown. He is mad from the start and his actions are an expression of something he barely understands himself, taking away the emphasis on ambition and making him much more empathetic. The three witches and a haunted Lady Macbeth simply escalate a trajectory that seems inevitable. The film opens on the first of many ingenious moves away from the text as the power couple bury their son, instantly raising the stakes, providing motivation for both Macbeth and his wife as well as giving the bloodline-ending rampage that comes later more meaning. The witches remain a mysterious and dark force but they are the only supernatural presence here, the rest comes solely from the minds of the characters.


Kurzel has managed to attract a cast of heavyweights in the supporting roles, even down to the smaller parts. Paddy Considine (whose Macbeth I would also love to see) gives Banquo a quiet dignity which makes his fate all the more tragic, while David Thewlis gives King Duncan a fatherly love for Macbeth which makes his ugly murder truly shocking. Sean Harris’ Macduff is unforgettable, particularly in the latter stages of the film as his desperate thirst for vengeance brings him a quiet intensity as he whispers: “I have no words/My voice is in my sword.”

Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth retains her French accent, echoing recent period dramas such as Wolf Hall. Her Lady Macbeth is empty and blank-eyed, which works well in earlier scenes especially when we see Macbeth come back from battle, desperate for attention and sympathy, but frustrates as the film progresses. This is compounded by an adaptation which makes her more sympathetic, with the unexpected effect of diminishing her presence in the action.

Though it takes some serious liberties with the text, cutting it down to its bare bones, this is an essential cinematic version of Shakespeare that demands to be seen on a big screen.

Words by Hamza Mohsin