Dallas — The best adaptations often strike out on their own path despite what the source dictates. These interpretations, especially in film, strive to capture the spirit of the original while forging their own unique character. Think Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Wes Anderson’s 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox, or any of Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations.
Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, 2011) works in that same independent vein in his “bloody, bold, and resolute” version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of all tragedies, Macbeth. Some may quibble with the many liberties he takes with the play, his focus on the aesthetic over the language, or his cutting of huge swaths out of scenes (where’s the Porter?); however, Kurzel’s filmic vision is intact as he taps into the dark soul of the Scottish Play.
The film opens on a windswept heath at a funeral for the Macbeths’ baby—its existence is itself a speculation not necessarily supported by the text, but adds an interesting element to the couple’s mania. The heather waves in the wind, the funeral pyre crackles, and the camera tracks the lonely hillsides surrounding the huddled procession. It is a theme that dominates the entire film: the look, the sound, and the feel are paramount.
Soon enough, we are thrust into the battle against invading Norway (one of the few historical scenes in the play) and we get a glimpse of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) as equal parts whirling dervish of death and destruction, and caring battle commander who mourns the dead and tends to the injured.
Kurzel does his best to show Macbeth (pre-regicide) as a thoughtful warrior beset with indecision. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) is less the haranguing shrew—as is the norm lately—and more the maternal, almost saintly, enabler, her large round eyes, ever-rimmed with tears before urging more ambition.
The duo seal the deal to kill King Duncan (a milquetoast David Thewlis) while copulating in a candle-strewn chapel. She tells him to “screw your courage to the sticking-place,” and he finally grunts his approval as he finishes, “I am settled.” The scene is far from sexy; it’s desperate and macabre, just like the Macbeths.
Once the deed is done and Macbeth takes the crown, he quickly descends into madness. He sees bloody apparitions at state dinners, takes off across the countryside in his nightshirt to find the “weird sisters”—Seylan Baxter, Lynn Kennedy, Kayla Fallon, and Amber Rissmann as chilling, deadpan spirits—drinks their strange brew, and dances around the royal bed. It’s a little much, and one of the few parts of the film that does not quite ring true.
Lady Macbeth comes apart a bit differently. She confronts their sins with abject sadness and weeping. One hardly blames her, as Kurzel stages the death of Macduff’s (Sean Harris) wife and young children as a fiery execution she must witness.
Fassbender does his best work here, especially in the first half of the film, even though Kurzel has him whisper and mumble most of his lines. Cotillard makes for an interesting Lady M. Her big, round eyes, are reminiscent of Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and they speak volumes.
The aesthetics of the film are simply astounding. Really second only to Kurosawa’s 1957 Macbeth masterpiece, Throne of Blood. Kurzel, and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective), along with Jed Kurzel’s hurdy-gurdy and strings score create a mood that is lovely, dour, and unrelenting. Their creation is visceral, primal, and entirely imbued with Nature.
So much takes place outdoors that even the few indoor scenes come off as detached. Soaring, snow-covered mountains, “blasted” heaths, the wind, blood, ashes, rain, and smoke coalesce into a gloomy ballet of morbidity.
Kurzel’s creation is black to its heart’s core. It is truly a film, not a filmed play, and it’s a beautiful, dark, twisted tragedy, quite similar to what Shakespeare himself did long ago.
» Macbeth (113 minutes; rated R for strong violence and brief sexuality) opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano, with multiple showtimes daily beginning Dec. 11. For showtimes in Dallas, go here; in Plano, go here.