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Cannes 2015: ‘Macbeth’ and the reliable charm of Michael Fassbender

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Macbeth
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Written by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso
UK 2015

The final film in competition, Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth delivers a spectacle of dripping blood, slow-motion battle scenes, sprawling Scottish highlands and Michael Fassbender. Fassbender stars as the Scottish warrior turned regicide and paranoid monarch, who after a particularly bloody battle has a vision of three witches predicting he will be King of Scotland. Macbeth starts out as an honorable soldier loyal to King Duncan (David Thewlis) and decides to only become king the “natural way”. However, after imprudently sharing the witches’ prophecy with his wife, played by Marion Cotillard, Macbeth finds himself constrained by her ambitious power lust.

Finding the right balance between words and images is essential when adapting a Shakespearean play for the screen and Kurzel’s weapon of choice is the emphasis on the rugged, indomitable beauty of the Scottish landscape, whether meadows, mountains, or sea; the highly stylised battlefield scenes; and Michael Fassbender’s physical expressiveness.

Some of the essence of the original Shakespearean language is preserved but overall the play is highly abridged, thus forgoing some of the verbal impact as can be expected of a screen adaptation; character motivation is also somewhat elliptically sketched out, so that is it hard to comprehend Lady Macbeth’s initial motivation down the serial killing spree road, as well as the turning point beyond which the spouses switch roles and Lady Macbeth is the one to repent. Cotillard said in the press conference that she has trouble getting into the role and this is evident in the end result – her Lady Macbeth is too toned down but not nuanced enough to be convincing. The driving force behind her ambition is murky and the viewer has to at times second-guess her actions (namely, in her return to the church of her home hamlet). Cotillard seems ill at ease and unsure where to go with the role, and then all of a sudden she’s shown lying dead.

Fassbender, on the other hand, while nowhere near the heights of his Shame or Hunger greatness, is a very endearing serial murderer, compensating with charisma what he lacks in precision with this role. Visually, he effortlessly draws in attention with the stylised, dramatic make-up (his hands seem to be constantly blood-stained) and theatrical lighting, but also with the natural intensity he exudes. Repeated focus on his wounded flesh and blood-dripping hands, as well as close-ups of his matted hair post-battle – these are some of the visual motifs the screen adaptation can afford that would be unfeasible in theatre.

Another cinematic aspect put to ample use by Kurzel is the stylised shooting of the battle scenes and surroundings. The overall hue is one of dusky Scottish autumn/winter, with little artificial light or daylight, but bluish filters are used in the opening battle scenes and very dense red filters mark the blood swamped ending. Slow motion bordering on freeze-frame at times appears in the sword fights, and the dead are often resurrected in Macbeth’s mind, complete with blood-dripping sword wounds and ghastly eyes. Whether or not the stylisation makes this adaptation transcend the theatrical is subject to debate, however the cinematography is virtually impeccable and especially impressive in the exterior sequences.

Whether this Macbeth will achieve the status of a cult classic is uncertain, but at any rate it offers a fine spectacle of Scottish mountains and Michael Fassbender.

– Zornitsa Staneva


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