Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended” went a particularly memorable Onion headline. Creatively unfaithful takes on the Bard have so become the norm that it can seem bold that the umpteenth film of “Macbeth” actually unfolds in 11th century Scotland. But it goes one better. It’s not a sanitized version, destined to kill time in high school English classes. It’s grimily realistic, filled with dilapidated castles, rickety shacks, overcast skies and deafening wind. The violence, which comes early and often, is nasty and traumatizing. Director Justin Kurzel opens with a battle where men inelegantly plow into each other, the few survivors emerging caked in dried Heinz 57.
It sounds unique, but even this has been done before. In 1971, in the wake of his wife and unborn child’s murders by the Manson Family, Roman Polanski tried to exorcise at least some of his demons by making a bleak-o-rama version of “The Scottish Play.” Like this “Macbeth,” it too was set in an unforgiving realm. It too had buckets of blood and gore. It too had actors trying to make iambic pentameter sound natural. The big difference is that Polanski cast young, underknown actors like Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. Kurzel casts Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard —acclaimed, poster-friendly thespians. The draw isn’t seeing another gritty “Macbeth” but in a more classical Shakespeare production way: wondering what great actors will do with roles and a story audiences have been watching for centuries.
Do we demand too much of every Shakespeare film? Isn’t there honor in propping up the classics, making sure audiences see a straight-up “Macbeth” and not one set in space or underwater (or, as in the comedy “Scotland, Pa.,” in 1970s America)? Even if we spend chunks of “Macbeth” twiddling our thumb, waiting to see how it will present very familiar plot points, there’s a comfort food quality here that can be more satisfying than some out-there reinterpretation. (Even Akira Kurosawa’s samurai spin, “Throne of Blood,” hits each and every beat, sometimes with swarms of arrows.)
Even with the mangy dogs and severed heads, the 2015 “Macbeth” isn’t that surprising, mostly offering slight variations on the norm. Fassbender’s Macbeth is typical Fassbender: alternately fiery and self-hating, finally bottoming out as a drunk bouncing around his castle like a bored rich kid. The most perverse thing in the film is Cotillard, whose big-eyed vulnerability makes her an outside-the-box Lady Macbeth. She talks a big game but quakes with discomfort as the plans she helped set in motion rank up an impressive body count. Kurzel even includes a shot of her looking horrified as the wife and children of Macduff (a reliably steely Sean Harris) meet an unusually upsetting end. (Still, the scene has nothing on the one in the Polanski, which plays as his deeply unnerving recreation of the Manson murders.)
Also like Polanski, Kurzel makes filmmaking primary, even over his actors, who try to make even their big soliloquies seem like offhand chatter — just another part of the cinematic arsenal. Sometimes Kurzel goes too far. Images of cruel nature and smoke engulfing a castle at dusk are appropriately bold; less so poetic slow-mo shots, or monologues cut up with cheesy inserts of Fassbender banging his head on a wall, complete with an exaggerated sonic thud. But the play’s the thing, even with the requisite giant chunks of text hacked out of it. It justifies its existence not by dirtying things up (again) but by staying, at least spiritually, true.