Macbeth might not be Shakespeare’s most sophisticated play — it is nasty, brutish and short — and yet, among the tragedies, it remains my personal favorite, if only because it contains the most blunt and chilling expression of nihilism yet registered in the English language.
Who has not felt the harrowing nausea of Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” as life’s petty pace creeps meaninglessly to the last syllable of recorded time? Poor player, indeed. The play marches forth with a relentless logic, as blind ambition, acting in a vacuum of moral bankruptcy, leads inevitably to a resolution steeped in madness and soaked in blood.
Macbeth is Hamlet with a hard-on.
Director Justin Kurzel transforms Macbeth’s evil rise and disastrous fall into a kind of expressionistic horror show, part tone-poem and part ghost story. Set largely outdoors on the Scottish Isle of Skye, the film is gloomy, granular, misty and mauve, like a winter walk on the Oregon coast. Specters appear and disappear in this landscape of slithering dread, creating an atmosphere where psychology is made manifest in the perforated perceptions of a shifting reality. Think the Macbeth Witch Project.
The begrimed cast is equally nebulous and indistinct, more walking shadows than flesh-and-bone characters; they are silhouettes put in service of Kurzel’s downbeat visual grandeur. It’s tough to imagine two more humorless actors working today than Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, who play the royally doomed couple. As Lady Macbeth, Cotillard is good, but she remains an actress of small gestures, largely unsuited to the tidal certainty of an ambitious monster.
Fassbender is an actor with charisma to spare, but he’s running the risk of being typecast as characters flattened out by the obsessive monotonies of singular intent; his Macbeth is indeed terrifying, and yet for all his brooding and raving, Fassbender seems immune to the possessive spirit of epic tragedy in all its abysmal dimensions. The full spectrum of suffering doesn’t come naturally to him, as it does to an actor like, say, Viggo Mortensen or even Matthew McConaughey.
The cinematography is spectacular, and Kurzel employs all manner of effects — fast- and slo-mo, freeze frame, choppy tracking shots — to outwardly depict the inner hurly-burly of Macbeth’s mind. The result is a visually stunning but remote Macbeth, at once noisy and mute. Although the story remains the same, much of the Bard’s language is lost amidst the clamorous spectacle of violent clashes and midnight homicides. (How in the hell does it take three screenwriters to adapt Shakespeare?)
And yet, despite such limitations — or perhaps because of them — Kurzel’s Macbeth achieves a bleak singularity of purpose. This is, after all, Shakespeare, forever adaptable and open to interpretation. Kurzel has opted to interpret Macbeth as a monolithic tale of martial madness, in which fate is a derailing train driven by insanity and ending in a pile-up of dire consequences. What this vision lacks in dynamic reckoning and psychological depth it more than makes up for in aesthetic consistency; like a song by Coldplay, it is all verse and no chorus. (Bijou Metro)