Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Macbeth: Fassbender Takes on the Sound and Fury

Academics have long debated just how many children Lady Macbeth had and lost, because they don’t hand out tenure for nothing. Justin Kurzel’s new cinematic take on the Scottish Play is willing to go on record positing one child, whose tragic death will psychologically torment her and her noble husband unremittingly. Kurzel also more fully embraces the blood and carnage of battle than politely prestigious productions past in his vivid adaptation of Macbeth (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

You might not recognize the scene of Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and Lady Macbeth burning their young child on a funeral pyre, but from there on, it is business as usual. However, Kurzel does not skimp on hack-and-slash action when Macbeth and his faithful comrade Banquo vanquish the forces of the treasonous Macdonwald. Just as the three witches promise, Macbeth is promoted to Thane Cawdor following the traitor’s execution. That gives Lady Macbeth ideas about the rest of the witches’ prophesy, particularly the part about Macbeth becoming King of Scotland. However, they had an addendum hailing Banquo as the forefather of future kings that somewhat vexes the childless Macbeth.

Although Lady Macbeth does indeed prompt her husband to commit murder, Kurzel’s conception of the Scottish Play is remarkably forgiving of this often vilified noble woman. Again, the explicit grief for her child humanizes her subsequent sins to a considerable extent. On the other hand, Malcolm the heir apparent is portrayed in unusually shallow and cowardly terms.

Casting Michael Fassbender as Macbeth is so logically self-evident, it seems strange nobody tried to do it sooner. He does not disappoint, completely committing to Kurzel highly physical conception of the Thane. One look from him can make the heather on the hills wilt. In contrast, Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is unusually sensitive and guilt-ridden. Unlike memorably ferocious Lady Macbeths (Rosanne Ma in the Pan Asian Rep’s Shogun Macbeth is still a favorite), she is almost delicate, which makes the contrast between her and Macbeth all the more dramatic. Paddy Considine and Sean Harris also add considerable grit and heft as Banquo and Macduff, respectively.

Visually, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw work is just as bold, deliberately evoking blood and fire with his vivid color palette, while (brother) Jed Kurzel’s minimalist score gives the film a contemporary vibe. Kurzel somewhat overindulges in symbolic imagery with his over the top closing sequence, but that is a minor misstep. In general, his fearlessness pays dividends.

Frankly, the all the best Shakespearean films take some liberties with their source material. Arguably, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood remains the greatest cinematic Macbeth, with its completely original but utterly iconic death scene. Kurzel’s Macbeth is a worthy follower in its tradition. Like Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Kurzel is very much in touch with the manly, action-driven side of Shakespeare, while also ruthlessly plumbing the dark psychological depths of his flawed characters. Highly recommended, Macbeth opens this Friday (12/4) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.