Generally speaking, the most striking cinematic Shakespeares are those that are the most strikingly cinematic. As a rule, hewing close to the stagebound play is a recipe for neutralization when delivered in a cinematic vessel. I wish no schadenfreude upon the Shake man himself, but arrant verbosity in a visual medium, especially in an adaptation of a play, is a harbinger only of a filmmaker’s belief that the almighty play is sacrosanct and immutable. A real artist instead uses the broad strokes to unpack the play as a palimpsest with lingering vestiges of theatrical memory interacting with modern themes and motifs to construct something new, bold, and visionary. If you love something, leave (most of) it alone. Pick out the necessities and find a new voice, your own voice, with it.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth splits the difference. It deserves more credit for excision than for its own additions. Gone is the tragic milieu of the original play about a maddened, increasingly delirious warrior of Scotland, here played by Michael Fassbinder. It is replaced, instead, by a crawling king snake of venom aplenty, a spiraling, circular fire around you. Kurzel’s film is a distinctly cinematic creation – the grandiloquent, restive, verdant cinematography from Adam Arkapaw lays down the law on that front. But it settles, for better and worse, for “most” cinema, without necessarily contemplating what it is the cinema ought to bring to the play in this incarnation. We’ve got sound and fury, as well as a cloyingly funereal morbidness, but too little brewing below the surface.
Perspiration, for one, is legion here, and so is all the mercury in mercurial. This Shakespeare is a slow-burn art-action flick, a little like if Antonioni directed the loopy Schwarzenegger vehicle hinted at in Last Action Hero. For sheer simmering distress, it can’t be beat. The introductory battle, and even more so the conclusion, both mix Snyder-esque visual bro-mides and an almost Wellesian cryptic mist of hallowed discontent, creating violence for a frat party at an art museum. It’s an uneasy, incomplete mixture, but there’s not much else like it these days. There’s not as much ingenuity in this vision as in, say, Roman Polanski’s absurdist-expressionist dripping-maw horror film version of the play from 1971 or the fractious Kurosawa Noh Theater depiction in Throne of Blood. But it seethes with the best of them.
Fassbender volcanically tethers the camera to his trembling, hypermasculine, bone-keeper version of the not-so-mournful hero. Magnetically, and almost singlehandedly, defraying some of the cost of the film’s literary hypertension, he chooses a brutish, capricious man rather than a lost soul. Feminists may take to the attribution and agency afforded Marion Cotillard’s no-more-munificent Lady Macbeth, although she’s still the sinister black mamba to her husband’s pit viper. Both of the performers are stranded in what amounts to a graveyard shift version of the tale, but they take to watching the cadavers like natural born undertakers.
Kurzel has some fun around the edges – a few torrid seizures of steamy horsepower interrupt the molasses flow of the piece. But the weakness of the film is identical to the overweening baroque grimness of the otherwise luminous The Revenant; these films want you to know that they mean business, and with scene after scene of pummeling sub-Bergman graveness, they demand that you acknowledge their import. Entrenched, these films be. They will not take no for an answer, and breaths of life are found only in further slips into caverns of darkness. Kurzel is a director of primordial, if primitive, power, but one would be surprised if he were to suddenly reveal the nimble hand Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s (of The Revenant) brought to the vertiginous screwball comedy of Birdman. Nimble, Macbeth ain’t.
Effective, if in its led-footed way, it is though. It weighs too heavily on itself, but there’s a fastidious appeal to Kurzel’s nebulous, vicious vision of the tale. You feel the malevolence in every shot, with the characters errantly maundering through a perpetual swamp of untempered humidity. Plus, even if the depth and mystery of the written work are expunged for a more rudimentary tale of trauma begetting madness, Kurzel hints at the demented sexual urges that alleviate Polanski’s version of the tale in the playfully sinister three witches scene and a waltz of the damned that puckers the film’s lips up until the walking-dead tone becomes a euphoric dance of death. There’s a talented filmmaker amidst the tatters of this tale; he just needs to unwind a little.