Macbeth starts in the same place as it ends: on the battlefield. No “double, double toil and trouble” – this is a serious and violent depiction of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and one that audiences won’t necessarily enjoy.
Australian director Justin Kurzel understands that for a film adaptation to set itself apart from the almost constant stream of stage performances, it must utilise the specific capabilities of modern cinema. He digs out his copy of Tarantino’s rulebook of screen violence – “it must be both unflinching and aesthetic” – which has been gathering dust since his 2011 Snowtown. Fight scenes alternate between silent stills of Fassbender’s deathly visage, slow motion close-ups of bloodshed and the sound and fury of battle.
Sound is crucial. In a manner reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s discordant string soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood, Jed Kurzel has created a deranged score which evokes the main character’s mad power rush. Nonetheless, Justin knows when to silence his brother and let the actors do the talking.
Superficially, the casting is perfect. Following his stand-out performances in Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender is the obvious choice for a complex and serious male lead, whilst Lady Macbeth’s sinister beauty lends itself well to Marion Cotillard, as demonstrated in Inception. However, Kurzel demands forced Scottish accents. It is part of a laudable effort to locate the action in the specific place and time in which it was set. Filmed on location in the highlands and the Isle of Skye, the cold, unforgiving surroundings give a strong visual reminder of the bleak themes.
This is no modern update, set in a Michelin-starred restaurant like Peter Moffat’s 2005 adaptation. This is a medieval Macbeth, with medieval squalor and medieval violence. It is the leaky wooden roof of their rural hut which provides the water with which the Macbeth couple try to “clear themselves of their deed.”
Kurzel appears to be desperately seeking artistic authenticity. Ultimately, this comes at the expense of audience enjoyment. Archaic vocabulary and intricate syntax renders Shakespeare’s dialogue confusing for modern audiences at the best of times. The delivery of the actors goes little way to remedy this. Fassbender’s body and face are frighteningly rigid, which adds to the menace of the character but hinders his ability to communicate.
Also, whereas McKellan and Stewart conveyed Macbeth’s lines clearly in their own voice, Fassbender’s mouth – which, true to character, never approaches anything remotely close to a smile – delivers Shakespeare’s beautiful lines in a gruff, monotonous drawl. But as long as the Palme d’Or committee understand, that is probably enough for Kurzel.