Without a doubt Kurzel and the writing team (Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso) have deliberately taken a very long walk on the dark side in their treatment of Shakespeare’s masterpiece of unbridled ambition leading to murder, madness and mayhem.
Unfortunately, there is precious little contrast—much less comic relief—to balance the slaughter of those who would be king and their kin. One welcome exception is the brief contribution from a children’s choir even before other equally innocent souls meet their fate far, far too soon.
Nonetheless, everything is captured beautifully (Adam Arkapaw providing magnificent long shots and unwavering close-ups—most notably in the latter category, the “Out damned spot” soliloquy, which, intriguingly, is staged back at the scene of King Duncan’s bloody death) and deftly scored (the predominantly string-rich orchestration—with delectable slides to reinforce the slipping away of Macbeth’s sanity).
The design team—led by Fiona Crombie—further reward the eye with detail-rich costumes (Jacqueline Durran) and sets (Alice Felton) that bring Shakespeare’s marvellous retelling of history into focus like never before.
Playing the title role, Michael Fassbender positively revels in treachery and brutality (such lines as “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” are devilishly chilling even as one assassination must, necessarily, lead to another). As Lady Macbeth, Marion Cotillard valiantly incites her spouse to take the first deadly step to the throne while being ravaged by her man; “Feed, and regard him not, sister” is delivered with an ice-cold tone that outdoes the curiously monotonic weird sisters (Seylan Baxter, Lynn Kennedy and Kayla Fallon) as they set the stage for tragedies to come.
Yet seeing the witches (and their brood) so often lessens the impact, taking away from the important notion of how just a little soothsaying and potions can go in awakening evil thoughts and acts in those whose blind ambition—initially stoked by a loving confederate—explodes to the point of no return, all the while believing themselves to be invincible (“No man born from a woman will ever defeat you.”). For as the prophesies come true, they take on an aura of divine intervention, fuelling a self-serving rationalization that all things pre-ordained must come to be.
The battle scenes and murders do not shy away from blood and guts, but employ just enough carnage to make their point rather than the penchant for some directors—cross-references below—to flood the screen with more gore than necessary to be credible.
As a prophetic coda, the final frames deftly explain why “don’t get mad, get even” will continue to foster hatred and treachery so long as there are those who feel that ugly revenge is the sweetest tonic of all.
Do see the film, but as soon as a chance presents itself (this season at the Stratford Festival, for example) experience the real thing and marvel again at how the Bard understood the human experience like few others before or after. JWR