This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 4th October 2015
On the surface, somewhere just beneath the dim illumination of a CliffNotes translation, the Scottish play is a simple story of one man’s unquenchable thirst for power, and the depths he and his wife will sink to in order to get what they want. Killing your king because someone told you you’d make a good regent and having your erstwhile best friend knocked off because you fear he’s suspicious may seem the stuff of hyperbole, even in today’s world where deceit and corruption appear to be part and parcel of political ascent. But it is timeless melodrama, and we relish the bloodlust while judging its female protagonist more harshly for really being the brains behind the brawn of the operation.
So it is impressive that young Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) has taken up this poisoned chalice of a play written half a millennium ago, in a language most people hate to read, and in only his second feature-length outing produced an extraordinarily accomplished and consistently mesmerising cinematic interpretation.
There is lots to applaud. Kurzel retains the original setting of a grey, cold and dark 11th century, where “going to work” means hitting the battlefield in ultra-slow-motion, sword brandished and face grimly drawn against blood red skies. Neatly abridged to a eminently palatable two hours, the actors purr in a Scottish brogue, delivering complex lines so languidly we are actually given time to hear, appreciate and understand their tribulations.
It’s possible that if you’re not into the source material, this visceral rendition still won’t impress – but those who are even vaguely familiar with the tale of ambition taken too far will be hard-pressed to imagine a better lead actor than Michael Fassbender. Heralded for doing the hard yards in Shame and Hunger, he and French-Hollywood star Marion Cotillard are perfectly-paired, equally-footed in their stardom and on-screen luminosity (his Scots accent comes more easily but Cotillard’s acuity with the Shakespearean tongue is still impressive). Crucially, these Macbeths invite us to feel (rather than just hear) their motivations, and their individual descents into psychological hell thus recast a merely evil couple as grieving parents whose shared fatal flaw is weakness in the face of flattery and temptation.
Forget your Denches and McKellens – whether a buff of the Bard or someone for whom his fame is baffling, this is the version of Macbeth that you need to see.