Film review: MACBETH, from ‘Built For Speed’

There have been countless big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s works and they’ve varied in quality from stunning (Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew) to hideous (the recent Kiwi caravan park version of Romeo and Juliet). Australian director Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth falls somewhere in the middle, it’s an ambitious attempt to capture the raw elemental forces that shaped Shakespeare’s tragic anti-hero but as the characters become submerged in the director’s heavy-handed style, it fails to connect on an emotional level.

The film begins promisingly with Kurzel refusing to engage in any irritating Baz Lurhman-style post-modern tinkering such as setting Macbeth in contemporary America. Instead, he locates the story in its original setting of brutal 11th century Scotland. There, Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor (Michael Fassbender), driven by his malevolently ambitious wife Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), the prophecy of three witches and (created for the film) grief over the loss of a child, launches his bloody quest for Scotland’s throne. Macbeth’s story is the archetype of political treachery and ruthless ambition which still resonates through art and politics today.

Unfortunately, a variety of problems combine to make Kurzel’s vision of this masterpiece unsatisfying and occasionally dull. The main problem is the dialogue. Shakespearean verse is tricky at the best of times but when it’s delivered in a flat, disconsolate, guttural grumble as it is here it becomes almost unintelligible. This, combined with film’s muted colours (at one point it turns sepia) and the relentless squawking violin music make this an often tiring experience.

The normally superb Michael Fassbender delivers a disappointingly lacklustre performance that never let’s us into the character. It feels as if Fassbender’s constantly searching for the right way to play Macbeth something with which he never quite comes to grips. Marion Cotillard conjures a more impressive performance but her whispering portrayal of Lady Macbeth, while occasionally menacing, is hardly a revelation. Paddy Considine gives Macbeth’s vicious rival Banquo some much needed grit and his would have been a memorable performance had he not equated spittle-filled bellowing with intensity.

One of the great challenges of the Shakespeare cinema adaptation is to make a movie rather than a filmed play. Franco Zefferelli did this superbly with his stunning technicolour adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and the Taming Of The Shrew in the 1960’s. Kurzel avoids staginess with expansive shots of the imposing Scottish landscape and vast, frantically edited battle scenes. At times he achieves stunning results with memorable images of a bleak world and a society regressing into barbarism. Often, though, it looks as if he’s trying to replicate Game of Thrones or in some of the more irritatingly stylised scenes, the Game of Thrones video game. He also indulges in the dreaded wobble-cam, particularly during a climatic fight scene which renders the action incoherent.

Kurzel’s idiosyncratic re-imagining of Macbeth will appeal greatly to some audiences but those looking for an emotionally involving interpretation the bard’s masterful poetry may find this an unfulfilling experience.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Justin Kurzel.

Release date: 2nd Oct 2015.

Running time: 113 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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