Macbeth (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Macbeth (2015)

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Macbeth leads the army of King Duncan against the rebellious Macdonwald.  Fresh with victory, a quintet of witches approaches Macbeth and his companion Banquo with words of prophecy.  Possessed by the horrors of war Macbeth takes the prophecy into his bloodied hands at the urging of Lady Macbeth.  Justin Kurzel directs Macbeth from a screenplay written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso, and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

PossessedMacbeth speaks to me in a way Hamlet never could.  Where the latter was paralyzed by superstition, political machinations, and a confused affection for both mother and Ophelia the former takes decisive action based on limited information filtered through the world he knows.  Ethically speaking, I respect Macbeth for taking action even if his reasoning is that of a violent fool.  But he is a fool who knows and plays his part well, strutting on the stage with sword in hand and venom in his tongue, letting those who cross his path leave certain how he regards them.

Director Justin Kurzel pushes the ethical aspect of Macbeth’s behavior in this latest production.  The fool understands his lot in life is that of a meaningless grunt whose actions may give him a title of little worth before he suffers the same cold steel fate as his adversaries.  Young and old soldiers alike fall in brutally beautiful detail in the opening moments as Macbeth advances on his adversary.  The women who beckon him are no more or less real than the carnage surrounding him, and with an almost mournful tone tell him and his companion Banquo of their fates.

This is not a Macbeth riddled with ethical confusion or mislaid intentions.  In Kurzel’s hands Macbeth is a man already driven to madness by the never-ending violence which permeates every aspect of his existence.  When Lady Macbeth, that infamous schemer, pushed her husband into action it is not because of her twisted tongue that he murders his king.  It is because after a lifetime of misery and cold treatment all he needed was the vision of five women telling him it is his destiny to murder his way to kingship, a destiny he takes readily to embrace how useless a role authority plays in his existence.

The landscape is as dangerous as the warriors Macbeth faces.

The landscape is as dangerous as the warriors Macbeth faces.

Kurzel’s Macbeth may be the most unrelentingly bleak and violent rendition of the play to-date.  It is not violent because of the battle scenes, though there are plenty of squirm-inducing moments there.  But because the landscape is one which threatens to swallow its Scottish inhabitants through the cold or heat.  Kurzel frequently frames his performers through fire, subtly reminding us of the hell of their daily lives, and when battle rages this hell springs forward to consume the horizon in smoke and blaze.  When the fire does not rage the cold winds howl on the soundtrack and what little light persists cuts like a dagger through the hollow halls.

The visuals help make Macbeth’s tale one of madness and evolution.  Macbeth persists through these environments because he is strong and those who are unfortunate enough to cross him are weak.  Broadly speaking, evolution has little need for the comforts of faith, something Kurzel realizes by making Christian iconography black and sullen against the structures which are supposed to protect their inhabitants.  It’s said when Ingmar Bergman and cinematography Sven Nykvist prepared to shoot Winter Light they spent days in churches observing how light moved through the its windows and walls.  It’s easy to imagine a similar scenario with Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, True Detective) if they spent time in a church bordering Hell.

If there’s one problem I have with Macbeth and its various iterations it’s in the way Lady Macbeth has been reduced to a one-note villain.  The screenplay - by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso - refreshingly makes her more a figure of tragedy than even Shakespeare’s original work.  Instead of a schemer they make her a prisoner who recognizes the environmental hell she is stuck in.  When she nudges Macbeth forward it’s less to seize power for power’s sake, but to move to a life of some comfort.  Marion Cotillard handles these moments with a quiet confidence and when Macbeth takes a turn for the worst she aims her performance more as a woman who wants to keep some mortal comfort instead of a schemer.

Religion is of little comfort in Macbeth, providing little light and no warmth.

Religion is of little comfort in Macbeth, providing little light and no warmth.

Cotillard and Michael Fassbender make for an intriguing pair in their roles.  Cotillard plays Lady Macbeth as a woman haunted by the early death of her child where Fassbender takes to Macbeth as a man possessed with unquenchable lust for murder.  The former is order, the latter anarchy, but with a stunning inversion of gendered archetypes.  Cotillard keeps her focus on building power for the family, attaining rule and prestige while Fassbender is a slave to his emotions, deepening his resolve toward the supernatural and – in one terrifying sequence – consumes blood provided by the witches which serves as an image both of menstrual consumption, but also as the blood drips from Macbeth’s beard that of a new mother eating the placenta for nourishment.

If you have not gathered at this point I want to make it clear – this version of Macbeth is possibly the bleakest adaptation of Shakespeare put to film.  There is none of the impish flair which allows for some to root for the villain as in Richard III, nor is there the morale boosting tenor of Henry V, and the violence is not so over-the-top that we can see it comically as in Titus Andronicus.  I found Kurzel’s Macbeth tiring not so much because of its unrelenting bleakness but the many times his camera stops to linger on the carefully composed shots.  They are beautiful, but the singular tone makes for a wearying experience.

Still, I cannot find too much fault for Kurzel and company’s relentless vision.  It was not entirely to my liking but I’d be dishonest if I did not say I respected each bold step into darkness.  I do not like Kurzel’s Macbeth, but I endured it, and that I can look at the results with some fondness speaks to the craft and care he put into the production.

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Tail - MacbethMacbeth (2015)

Directed by Justin Kurzel.
Screenplay written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso.
Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Posted by Andrew

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