By Richard von Busack
A king-pleaser as much as he was a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare tailored his Scottish tragedy to the new King James: Macbeth was short, violent and full of witches, since His Majesty had a lively interest in witches in his realm. Director Justin Kurzel’s new film of Macbeth has, in the form of Michael Fassbender, a solemn, dogged soldier with a 1,000-yard stare, who climbs his way to the top through murder. But this Australian director (Snowtown) doesn’t have a new take on the tragedy—in this view, royalty means nothing except bigger halls to be miserable in and just more children to be slaughtered.
The movie begins with Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) burying her son. The essence to this ambitious lady is disappointed motherhood—not an interpretation that does one of literature’s great villainesses a service. She talks into the nape of her husband’s neck, sealing their contract to murder with an act of sex; she’s seen praying in a chapel to ask the spirits to make her a human vessel of poison. Does she think God will help her? This little, scrappy queen has a wanton side—she knows how to use her body to keep her husband focused. But as soon as Macbeth is crowned, looking sated and a little poisoned himself, he’s out of her control.
Kurzel switches from the grisly slo-mo battlefields and wind-rattled huts to huge interiors in Ely Cathedral and Bamburgh Castle, the latter where Roman Polanski shot his similarly realistic Macbeth in the 1970s. The beauty of the highlands and the frosty mountains over them are magnificently depressing; the fog overshadows bloody, mud-dwelling humanity. But ordinarily, even in a production that gives darkness and doubt their weight, you can make a contrast between the depths of human evil and the height of the dialogue.
Macbeth learns to beware his nemesis Macduff because of an apparition: The ghosts of the dead muttering the warning “Beware Macduff” as they walk by their still-living comrade. The tone of these walking dead isn’t much different than the murmuring of the shell-shocked Scots lords and men.
Macbeth seems to be fighting for his crown on the plains of Hell. What gets this director really ardent is the mayhem, the killings in the forest and the close-quarters stabbing scenes, instead of the magnificent language that evens the estates of commoners and kings.