Review by Jane Freebury
The last time I saw Macbeth on screen it was set in the ganglands of Melbourne. Geoffrey Wright's film was not the first to opt for a mobster interpretation either, but I think it misses the point that you don’t have to be a gangster to behave like one. The ruling classes can behave just as ruthlessly as the mob in their pursuit of power.
So in this most recent take on the Bard's dour and bloody tale of regicide, it is Scotland's craggy peaks, desolate moors and wind-pummelled coast, rather than an underworld milieu, that bear witness to the barbarity of man.
The original economy of one of Shakespeare's shortest plays has been opened up for striking visual interpretation here. Some judicious pruning by the screenwriters has also made more space for the images to speak for themselves, and how eloquent they are. As the camera goes wide and grand, director Justin Kurzel has seen to it that the homeland has more than a bit part.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw worked with director Kurzel on Snowtown and has made quite a name for himself in the True Detective series, also with terrific Australian films like Animal Kingdom and Cate Shortland’s remarkable and little known Lore. From exteriors to candle-lit interiors, he has done wonderful work again here.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard pair very well as partners in crime. She is all guile and seduction while he is the more impulsive and reactive, a man built for battle but not for courtly intrigue.
The underlying reasons why Macbeth murders Duncan remain, as ever, somewhat elusive. That 'blood will have blood' can only be taken so far, it seems to me, and the question of fundamental responsibility appears to have exercised scholars for a very long time. For all I know it's been an enduring source of fascination since 1606 when Shakespeare wrote ‘fin’ and put down his pen.
Instead of the traditional trio of toothless hags, and instead of an array of nubile adolescents as in Wright’s interpretation in 2006, the witches here could blend into the crowd. They are even accompanied by children. Taking heed of tantalising prophecies from women such as these might not be so deranged.
It is of course the figure of Lady Macbeth to whom we look once again for more answers. What drove her in the first place and how much was she responsible for making her man screw his courage 'to the sticking place’? The theme of manliness and Lady Macbeth’s observations on the manly spirit are intriguing to hear down the centuries.
In a nuanced and delicate interpretation of the character sometimes seen as the real villain of the piece, Marion Cotillard is a compelling blend of steely, mannish determination and maternal feeling. She is wrestling with grief — a creative interpellation here — and is she persuading her husband to take action where it may be a question of kill or be killed in Scotland’s own particular game of thrones? The ending suggests as much.
The Macbeths have lost a child, seen buried at the start, and are dealing with childlessness while other lords have been able to produce offspring and ensure their line. It is a convincing starting point for diminished responsibility, but less convincing as the trigger for a bloodbath. However, that's not the adaptation, it's the play and could be a good reason for its continuing fascination.
This is a visually stunning and intelligent Macbeth from Kurzel and his creative team. Another study of power in personal relationships like his fiercely chilling first feature, Snowtown.