The New Macbeth Does Violence to Shakespeare

(L-R) MICHAEL FASSBENDER and MARION COTILLARD star in MACBETH.

Macbeth
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Opens December 4

The sheer number of Macbeths in recent years would suggest there’s something in the story that resonates in the 2010s, though the productions themselves indicate the popularity is based more on producers wanting a classy title with heavy name recognition to dress up standard-issue action beats. Recent stage versions with Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh prided themselves on their brutality—emphasizing the violence has been the standard take on the material since Roman Polanski’s 1971 film—but they’ve been entirely outdone on that score by Justin Kurzel’s new film version, which channels video games or Zack Snyder as much as the Bard.

You know the drill: spraying blood in extreme slow motion; close-ups filmed with a camera that’s not just handheld but actively shaking; stylized tableaux of actors and extras are arranged artfully and standing motionless. The question of whether these choices are effective is obscured by the fact that they don’t feel like choices; Kurzel isn’t absent here, but his presence is felt less than the presence of genre directors who came before, and from whom he’s borrowing.

This sense of default choices being made extends to the actors, a marvelous cast (Marion Cotillard and David Thewlis among them) who bring little new to their interpretations. As Macbeth, Michael Fassbender conveys extreme intensity but little life or spontaneity, especially compared with his recent take on Steve Jobs, another leader who sprung headlong into ambition. The film’s decision to show an early battle especially hurts here, as not only does the sequence fail at generating a heart-pounding opener, but Macbeth seems so traumatized by what he went through that the character’s ambition is overshadowed by his apparent PTSD. He never seems especially interested in being king, and follows the witches’ prophesy more out of obligation, which tempers the ultimate tragedy of his folly.

Certainly the film excels on a technical level. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw does bold (occasionally excessive) work with tinting and visible light, and he captures a real sense of desolation and foreboding in the snowy, foggy, muddy vistas that make up Scotland’s stage of carnage. It is a handsome production, but that’s insufficient. After it struts and frets its hour upon the stage, expect to this Macbeth to be heard from no more.

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