‘All the perfumes of Arabia’ cannot sweeten Macbeth, and that’s a good thing, because it’s not a sweet story.
If you’re in the mood for some High School literature class caliber violence, then look no further than the new adaptation of Macbeth. Personally, I haven’t opened to a page from Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, since sophomore (maybe junior?) year of high school. So knowing that the Macbeth director and writers chose to stick to roughly 90% (guesswork) of the original Shakespearean dialogue, I quickly read a Wikipedia summary before heading to the screening. This was a good choice. The one, and only, thing that the new Macbeth cinematic adaptation suffers from is its unwillingness to cater to the play’s newcomers. Otherwise, outstanding performances and cinematic flourishes from the director and cinematographer help Macbeth ascend the throne as one of the best Shakespeare adaptations in the last decade (Joss Whedon’s 2012 modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is right up there.)
Macbeth is a complex story of madness, betrayal, fate, and lineage. I’m not going to go through the plot summary since I imagine most have read the play or are already familiar enough, or completely turned off by Shakespeare. In the case of the latter, knowing the plot won’t shield you from the film’s loyalty to the Bard’s written word. Instead, I’m going to shower praises upon the two leads, Michael Fassbender (Macbeth) and Marion Cotillard (Lady Macbeth). They’re both phenomenal here. Fassbender is able to convey the title character’s descent into madness with effortless fluidity, his eyes and body language conveying the ever-increasing weight of the prophecies and turn of events leading up to each moment. Even when delivering the longer dramatic monologues, which can commonly be seen as simple recitation, Fassbender inserts his own nuances with the pacing and emphases that turn the monologues into emotional streams of consciousness. Cotillard does the same. Her character’s switch from conspiring ally to self-inflicted victim is nothing short of incredible. When she delivers the “out, damned spot!” monologue, you’re mesmerized by her torment and then you begin to wonder afterward if that’s the clip High School English teachers should start showing their classes. And if there were ever an acting class concentrating on properly shedding tears on screen, boy is there a treasure trove of examples here.
Macbeth also takes some stylistic liberties. The opening battle sequence contains engaging character positioning and slow motion fragments, both adding a dream-like quality to the unfolding plot. And the final confrontation is drenched in a fiery cloud of smoke with glowing cinders flying by. It’s beautiful and tragic, with the film’s overall progression of browns and grays to oranges and reds resembling a slow descent into hell. It was fun to learn that Macbeth director Justin Kurzel will be directing Fassbender and Cotillard once again in an adaptation of the successful video game franchise, Assassin’s Creed, since we can see here that he has the ability to display a strong stylistic sensibility without deterring or detracting from plot. Until that time, however, we should embrace the instances in which works of the past are kept fresh and powerful in works of the present. Good adaptations are awesome, bad ones are really unfortunate. Since after all, “What’s done cannot be undone.” HOORAY!
Macbeth opens in limited theaters Dec. 4th.