Justin Kurzel’s telling of Macbeth is not particularly interested in the actual story of William Shakespeare’s play. Instead, with its grim, violent beauty and it’s otherworldly framing and sound design, it’s more of a tone poem. The problem is, it’s not a very deep one.
If you’ve somehow missed out on the plot of Macbeth (or didn’t see 2001’s comedic reimagining, Scotland, Pa.), it goes like this: A Scottish general named Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) gets it into his head, thanks to some meddling witches, that he should be king. So, with a ton of moral support from his wife (Marion Cotillard), he kills the current king (David Thewlis), which drives Macbeth a little crazy. As you might expect, a bunch more people die as his madness grows.
Macbeth’s insanity is born of guilt at what he’s done and, taking his cues from that, Fassbender plays him not as a raving lunatic but an intensely depressed paranoiac. In broad terms, that’s absolutely the right choice. But Fassbender adopts a methody, mumbly approach at odds with the inherent theatricality of the text. If there’s anyone whose dialogue you don’t want to be muttered, it’s Shakespeare.
A full performance Macbeth generally takes about two and a half hours. At under 120 minutes (and replete with moody silences), there’s a fair bit removed from the story. That’s par for the course for cinematic adaptations of the Bard but the results are especially depleting in this instance. Some characters still manage to thrive thanks to strong performances like those from Thewlis and Paddy Considine as Macbeth’s army buddy Banquo. Macduff (Sean Harris), on the other hand, never rises to the level of adversary he ought to. The most egregious misstep is Kurzel’s shuttling of Lady Macbeth to the fringes. In the best versions of the Scottish play (again, see Scotland, Pa.), Macbeth and his wife are co-leads, an ambitious, unified front driven apart by what they’ve done. Cotillard is fantastic here when she is allowed to be but soliloquies alone don’t make a Shakespearian character.
Despite all of the above issues, however, Macbeth is still an impressive achievement in the cinematography and editing departments. Kurzel achieves the feel of a waking nightmare, the blur of reality and hallucination that might be experienced by someone who hasn’t slept in days. Strict chronology occasionally takes a backseat to emotional continuity. People appear to speak without moving their lips. The violence is grisly and explicit even while unfolding in grand slow motion, with arcs of blood carving their way through the thick Scottish fog.
The trouble is, once you’ve absorbed a half hour or so of Kurzel’s oppressive elegance, it’s unchanging pitch grows repetitive and wears thin. Macbeth is stunning in short bursts but too static to sustain its runtime.