Macbeth film review - Furious, fragile and faithful Shakespeare adaptation

Justin Kurzel's take on the Scottish play is all style and substance in this beautiful new film

Michael Fassbender in Macbeth. (Studio Canal)

Michael Fassbender in Macbeth. (Studio Canal)

The Scottish play has always been cited as a classic study of ambition and the lust for power, and the cost at which that comes if applied too strongly, and this interpretation by Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) does little to divert away from the original, powerful source material. Instead, it has its own cinematic flair, a style of filmmaking that reflects upon its lead character’s fractured state of mind and, above all else, compelling performances from its leads in the fields of war-torn ancient Scotland.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is a stringent, ruminating war chief, eyes shaded black with war paint, who leads his charges into battle with a roaring cry rather than strategise from afar. He lops heads, stabs and slices with fury, but speaks with cold callousness, harbouring plans for success after three witches come to him with several prophecies which end with him becoming King of Scotland.

His murderous deeds bring him and his wife to the throne, whereupon he becomes racked with guilt and confusion, hallucinating bloody daggers and the ghosts of those he has killed, to the detriment of his reputation amongst his subjects. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), initially scheming, begins a descent into madness up until a hollow conclusion amidst a sea of fire and red mist.

It’s a beautifully shot film - gaping wide-open shots of castle interiors and landscapes, ponderous close-ups of Fassbender as he hatches plots within his mind (but, naturally, voices them out loud, for our benefit) and beautiful use of lighting. When Macbeth begins to doubt himself, and his mind begins to fracture and crumble, the flashbacks to earlier battles are out of order, and confused. It's almost as if - whisper it - the great Scottish king suffered from PTSD. An ailment undiagnosed, if recognised, as Shakespeare wrote the play, can now be applied by a modern filmmaker, and it is to great effect.

There’s an authentic feel to the film, from unkempt beards to the basic cloth in which the characters are bound; Hamlet, when named Thane of Cawdor, is handed a simple golden sash to wear across his shoulder, shabby, muddied and loose.

Beautiful, minimalist and masterfully performed, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a gripping adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best known plays. Fassbender, who excels in character studies such as Frank and Shame, is ideal in what is surely the ultimate of all character studies. It may well stay with you tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

4/5