The Bard gets the Game of Thrones treatment in 2015’s Macbeth, a full-blooded, and fully bloody, adaptation of the classic play that scores some points with its rich Gaelic atmosphere.
Most that enter will be intimately familiar with the source: next to Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth might be Shakespeare’s most well-known work (I recall first reading it in the sixth grade), and the story already has two classic screen adaptations, by Orson Welles in 1948 and Roman Polanski in 1971.
Both of those versions embrace the darkness of the source material in ways that a theatrical production could not: Welles’ film is so atmospheric that it almost becomes a horror movie, while Polanski’s film, made shortly after the muder of his wife, turned so violent it became shocking (for the time, at least).
This Macbeth, from Australian director Justin Kurzel (who previously made the excellent serial killer drama Snowtown), follows their lead: it’s a gorgeously cinematic experience that celebrates the modern-day possibilities of the medium while embracing the material’s inherent gloom. This is a dirty, grimy, sticky, and bloody affair that forces you into the muck alongside its characters.
Kurzel’s film also has one real plus that not many prior adaptations can boast: authentic location filming, with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw capturing the Scottish Highlands in all their glory in the background of almost every shot. It’s one of the best-looking Shakespeare adaptations ever put to film, complete with the vibrant 300-style visuals.
Authenticity also bleeds through the thick, scraggly beards of the principal male cast and the Gaelic-inflected performances: while the principal cast features few native Scots, each delivers a full-bodied accent with gusto.
The performances are one of the benchmarks by which a Shakespeare adaptation is judged, and this version Macbeth comes with pretty high pedigree. Michael Fassbender is frighteningly good as the titular character consumed by ambition; while he’s off-kilter from the outset, his descent into madness – highlighted by the famous banquet scene – seems to take a page from Kubrick’s The Shining.
As Lady Macbeth, Marion Cotillard is a great match for Fassbender’s lead, feeding his character’s ambition and eventually getting swallowed up by it. The two have terrific rapport, but Cotillard fares less well when alone on screen; Lady Macbeth’s “out, damn spot!” soliloquy, one of the play’s strongest scenes, plays out pretty flat, though the actress is not helped by some unusual choices by the director.
In supporting roles, David Thewlis is excellent as the King Duncan, while Paddy Considine makes for an efficient Banquo. Jack Reynor also provides solid support as Macolm, the king’s son.
But the real standout of this version of Macbeth is Sean Harris’ Macduff: Kurzel fully embraces the gritty, violent nature of the story’s undercurrent, turning climactic scenes into something of a revenge fantasy. You can feel the pain, but also the rage, in Harris’ face in the film’s finest scene, when Macolm informs him of the murder of his wife and children.
Compared to previous adaptations, Kurzel’s version is a faithful if grotesquely embellished: the witches sport horror-movie makeup f/x, ghosts appear like something out of a zombie film, and blood flows freely from the sword (the climactic burning scene is legitimately tough to watch).
But Bard be damned, I’ve never been a fan of using the original dialogue in these kinds of productions. What works beautifully on stage feels far too poetic for this harshly realistic realm, and puts a disconnect between the production and the audience. We can appreciate it in all sorts of ways, but we never really get sucked into its world.
Of course, it would take some real cajones for a writer to try to upstage Shakespeare’s dialogue – especially in an official adaptation – so this kind of thing is expected. Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations remain the best modern takes, because they embrace the theatrical nature of the material rather than tossing us in a revisionist, ultra-realistic affair that we cannot truly get lost in.
Still, there’s a lot to admire in this new Macbeth. If it doesn’t best the Welles or Polanski versions, it comes awfully close.