Climbing the power ladder is a bloody, bruising business, and that is nevermore so starkly rendered than in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The titular Scottish general turned king (Michael Fassbender) speaks of his “vaunting ambition,” and it is this very ambition, and his wife’s, that leads to their descent into madness and murder. Kurzel’s take on the age-old story offers stunning visual poetry to match Shakespeare’s verse (though the screenplay is adapted by Jacob Kosloff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso), and serves a vision of the Scottish king’s political maneuvering in context. The result is a gorgeous and harrowing portrait of power gone mad.
The story is set in the medieval era of Scottish civil war, opening with the battle of Ellon, led by Macbeth. It’s a brutal fight, quick and savage and chaotic, silhouetted against the misty moors. It’s in the aftermath of this melee that Macbeth encounters the “weird women,” the witches who prophecy that he will be king. With this fortune in mind, Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard) conspire to murder King Duncan (David Thewlis), implicating his son Malcolm (Jack Reynor), and take the crown themselves. When all goes according to plan, Macbeth, haunted by guilt, trauma and visions of his teenage son killed in battle, resorts to even more bloodshed and paranoia in order to keep his station.
The film does use Shakespeare’s words for the dialogue, but any confusion is allayed by the masterful visual storytelling that accompanies it, as well as the stellar performances. Cotillard and Fassbender are typically fantastic and fully embodied in their portrayal of the scheming Macbeths. Cotillard is ethereal but steely, terrifying in her own right. Supporting actors stand out, including Paddy Considine as Macbeth’s betrayed friend Banquo, and Sean Harris as his foremost enemy, Macduff.
The on-screen world they inhabit is earthy, visceral and organic. It’s made up of flame and blood; mud, mist, fur and fire. Using these elements, Kurzel and director of photography Adam Arkapaw create stunning tableaus — within the Scottish landscape, or lit entirely by candlelight. They position the characters on screen in a painterly way – posing them against the landscape or through play with speed in editing, switching between regular and epically slow motion. The swirling and undulating images are juxtaposed against a morbid stillness. The score thrums and vibrates with moaning strings and thumping drums, sounding either of a wail or a heartbeat.
The cinematic visual drama that Kurzel creates, with Arkapaw, is a mesmerizing pairing for Shakespeare’s play, inserting the gore, lust and violence on a level that could only be achieved on screen (rather than onstage). We are taken inside Macbeth’s troubled mind — his traumatic flashbacks, memories and dreams, until his brain is fully aflame with torment and regret, until it all burns down. Soaked in blood and ash, “Macbeth” is a poetic imagining of the ancient play that breathes fully in life and captures the mysteries of death.
Rated: R for strong violence and brief sexuality. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine. Director: Justin Kurzel. Running time: 113 minutes. Theater: Flicks.