Movie Review: MacBeth (2015)

MACBETH (USA/UK/France 2015) ***

Directed by Justin Kurzel

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jack Madigan

Review by Gilbert Seah

It does to seem that long ago (1971) that Roman Polanski, in top cinematic form directed his version of MACBETH with Jon Finch in the title role.  His was an unforgettable MacBeth complete with old nude witches brewing around a cauldron and ending with the MacBeth’s head paraded on a stick.

No such luck in Justin Kurzel’s MACBETH.  (Kurzel is the Australian director best known for THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival years back but not released.)  The troubled King of Scotland does die at the end but his head is intact.  The witches look like normal human beings, more like Scots women, wearing normal garments.  But his version is a Shakespearean film concentrated more on poetry, both verbal and visual than on shock tactics.

Running just under 2 hours, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is still a lengthy drama, spoken in Old English Shakespearean prose, which takes some minutes before the ear gets accustomed to.  The story that needs not be reiterated in detail, which almost everyone is familiar with, concerns MacBeth and his wife usurping the throne of Scotland from King Duncan (an excellent David Thewlis), after murdering him.  All this is foretold by three witches, and a child in the case of this film, to MacBeth who seems to believe all their predictions.  

It is clear right from the film’s beginning that director Kurzel wants to take the Scottish play out in the open.  The witches appear in the open countryside instead of a room with a cauldron.  The epic battle which MacBeth wins to gain favour with the King of Scotland is expensed in all its gory and bloodiness.  The battle scene looks something right out of 300.  Together with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Kurzel keeps most of the action outside thus displaying the ruggedness and stunning beauty of the Scottish terrain and mountains.

One disadvantage of pulling the camera back from the characters results in the audience feeling more distant from MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  They seem less evil.  When the camera shows the surroundings of the execution of a mother and her kids, Kurzel opts to show sympathy in the face of Lady MacBeth, thus making her more sympathetic and less ambitious and evil, and taking away the main spirit of the MacBeth play.

Performances-wise, every actor dreams of playing the titular roles of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  Fassbender and Cotillard can do no harm but they are not exceptional.

Kurzel’s MACBETH works as another adaptation of the Bard’s work, still worth a look and a good film for those studying the play in school.  At least it is not a modern interpretation like the recent HAMLET with Benedict Cumberbatch wearing Jeans thus bastardizing the Hamlet play.  But Polanski’s 1971 adaptation remains my favourite MACBETH.