MACBETH (5 out of 10) Directed by Justin Kurzel, Written by some dude named William Shakespeare; Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Sean Harris; Rated R for "strong violence and brief sexuality;" 113 min; In limited release Dec 11, 2015.
Take one of Shakespeare's most exciting plays, cast two of our generation's best actors in the lead roles, and shoot the thing beautifully on the craggy, misty moors of Scotland, and you'd think you'd have a surefire hit. And yet somehow this film trades some of its human drama for the cheap thrills of bloody violence and, while gripping in its own right, never seems to capture the essence of what makes this such a classic.
Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous Scottish lord-who-would-be king and he is just as great as you would expect. Marion Cotillard plays a layered, but still devious Lady Macbeth and may be the best part of the film. Director Justin Kurzel, in the opening moments of the film, gives them even more motivation and a new layer of nuance not often brought to "The Scottish Play," and it colors much of the film, all the way to Lady Macbeth's "out damn spot!" and descent into madness.
There are numerous other interesting choices made here directing-wise. Unfortunately, by the end of the film, they all seemed to have somehow added up to less than the sum of their parts. The film opens with a bloody battle sequence, showing Macbeth and best friend Banquo and their prowess in battle. But unlike the stylized ultra-violence of Zach Snyder or Quentin Tarantino, this is dirty and gross. There is nothing glamorous and little noble about what they do, and the losses they incur haunt Fassbender's portrayal throughout the film. (There's an interesting twist on the "Is this a dagger I see before me?" scene that I won't spoil)
Unfortunately, the violence--realistic as it may be--is off-putting. This is a near constant problem with the film, as it attempts to ground itself in reality. Gone are the witches' chanting of "Double double, toil and trouble" as the weird sisters seem to merely be strange soothsayers rather than anything supernatural.
One problem with "Macbeth" as a play in general is its climax, which dictates that Birnam Wood must come to Dunsinane castle. Usually this means that the final army shows up covered in fake-looking leaves and branches and it all looks somewhat silly. This film trades that trope for a more interesting, non-literal take on those words (which I won't spoil). But let's say that the ending seems more appropriate to John Woo than Kenneth Branaugh, Lawrence Olivier, or Orson Welles.
This more overt take also bleeds over into the area of sexual content. And while Joss Whedon used something similar in his adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing," that was done for comedic effect and brought an interesting twist on gender-swapping a traditionally male role of Conrad. Here it just felt. . . tawdry. And perhaps a bit too on the nose. Lady Macbeth should be able to seduce her husband to commit murder without resorting to. . . er. . . that.
Despite all of these interesting choices, great performances by the leads, and amazing cinematography, the film just sort of plods along. It shares this problem with Ralph Fiennes's "Coriolanus" from 2011 and Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" and instead could learn some lessons from Whedon and Branaugh in bringing The Bard to the big screen.
5 out of 10