Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s iconic Scottish play isn’t so great a leap from his 2011 debut, the rural New South Wales-set Snowtown. Where Kurzel began his exploration of the destructive male ego through the life of serial killer John Bunting, in his latest film he escalates things, with a striking interpretation of one of the most seminal works on masculinity in all literature. Macbeth is the prototype for men like Bunting – so far removed from their emotions and steeped in societal notions of masculinity and power that their violent and brutal actions seem almost entirely out of their control, and dangerously unstoppable.
Too often modern Shakespeare adaptations succumb to the temptation to curb the actual content, running with a residual high-school perception that it’s hard to make Shakespeare interesting. To ease the audience into the dialogue, the plot of the plays tend to be reframed into some other genre or context for ease of consumption – like Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 adaptation of Macbeth, wherein Macbeth ascends to the title of boss in the Melbourne criminal underworld. In Kurzel’s Macbeth, though, he meets the drama of the play and its dialogue head on visually – the sky is set alight, the battlefield is strewn with bodies, and the harsh, beautiful Scottish landscape that belongs to the play is given the lavish attention it deserves. Much like the brutality in Snowtown, the violence in Macbeth is unflinching and stark, yet never excessive or unnecessary – more than a narrative tool or shocking aside, it paints a picture of a world where brutality is an inherent, unchanging presence.
Michael Fassbender’s grave Macbeth is immaculate from the start; he is forged on the battlefield and never seems to leave it. On edge and vulnerable, Macbeth crumbles so subtly and swiftly that his descent into madness manages to be extremely melodramatic without being disingenuous. Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth also holds an exceptional power, bringing to life the balance of masculinity and femininity so essential to the character; it seeps out of her restrained asides and terrifying spousal reprimands. Her “out, damn spot” sleepwalk soliloquy is quietly charismatic, speaking to her ability to convey so much with very little.
Kurzel’s narrative flourishes are fascinating and apt – the first of them being the opening scene, depicting the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. Their childlessness is hinted at but never tackled in the play; in the film, Kurzel makes it explicit, solidifying the disturbing and highly emotional connection between the couple. The device of the deceased child is fleshed out in another one of Kurzel’s additions, where Lady MacDuff and her children are burned at the stake. In the play they are murdered offstage, here Kurzel has Macbeth burn them while he forces Lady Macbeth to watch; in this moment, he is subjecting her to his suffering, the loss of their child that he blames her for as the mother who couldn’t provide care; Lady Macbeth’s distress gives later weight to her guilt-induced breakdown.
While such a brutal addition might seem forced, it slots in exceptionally well with both the film’s thematic concerns and Kurzel’s career thus far, harkening back to the violence inherent in a masculine system of power. In the iconic scene where Banquo’s ghost terrorises Macbeth at the royal banquet, the insanity of Macbeth’s reaction is stressed further by the quiet distress of the attendees. Here we are also forced to confront the fickle nature of masculinity – Macbeth is king, but is taken away, drooling, by his steely queen. Lady Macbeth’s self-imposed angst regarding her womanhood and inability to care for a child is the foil to Macbeth’s outwardly directed masculine crisis, which he isn’t even privy to. He cannot deal with his mental battle scars, the loss of his child or the weight of his crimes, so he externalises – punishing his wife for her imagined failures and condemning the ghost of his victim. Cotillard and Fassbender’s performances speak to these gendered emotional manifestations – where Cotillard is quiet and restrained, Fassbender is explosive and violent.
The score for Macbeth (by Kurzel’s brother, Jed, also the composer for Snowtown) is dramatic in the best way – a rolling thunder of drums and strings hums perpetually in the background and explodes in fits of frenzy throughout. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is similarly excessive; in the final frame, an inexplicably returned Fleance comes across the discarded body of Macbeth, stooped in a shameful and submissive seated position. Fleance grips a nearby discarded sword and runs off with it into the foggy distance as a blood red filter seeps over the scene. The return of Fleance is another directorial flourish that expands on the fleeting nature of ego and power so central to the narrative of Macbeth; the once central figure is literally left in the dust as the misguided notion of masculine purpose and honour bleeds down into the next generation, and despite all of their sound and fury, nobody has learned anything.
While much of Kurzel’s Macbeth might seem heavy-handed, it’s almost something of a virtue when wrestling with such melodramatic subject matter. In this sense, instead of shying away from those elements in Shakespeare’s play, Kurzel has created the most dramatic and loyal adaptation of Macbeth in recent memory that simultaneously adds to the story in plot and thoroughly explores and expands on its ever-relevant themes of masculinity and power.
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