Generally, with William Shakespeare film adaptations there are two ways to approach critical analysis, either by how well it adapts the Bard’s play or how well it recontextualizes it. In both departments, Justin Kurzel‘s Macbeth actually both succeeds and falls on its sword. Its a fluid, breathless, and visually stunning film, but it’s also extremely hollow and strips too much from Shakespeare’s play. This is a lean and mean adaptation that skips over the sections of Shakespeare’s play that depicted concerns of poverty and societal roles—the very pieces that drive Macbeth’s “human kindness” toward tragedy—in favor of depicting only the darkness of the text. It lives valiantly and dies soddenly by its decision to substitute the Bard’s poetry with visuals.
We meet Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) in the muddy horrors of battle. He is a ruthless warrior and Kurzel slows down the action to emphasize plunging daggers and blood spurts amidst an ashen sky. As the would be king, Fassbender is all grimace and gnashing teeth; in short, a gladiator.
After an exceptionally bloody battle that turned the tide of Scotland’s civil war, Macbeth and his servant (Paddy Considine) encounter witches who foretell of Macbeth’s ascension to the throne. He sends word to Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) of their premonition and an advance call to rejoice. After reading his note, she pleads in solitude for all the wickedness to find Macbeth, expunge the kindness in his heart and allow him to do whatever needs to be done to take what is now rightfully theirs. Lady Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness” line is uttered, but we never witness any evidence kindness or righteousness from this warrior. In the text, Lady Macbeth ruthlessly undermines Macbeth’s manhood upon his return and asks to be un-sexed so that she too can be as ruthless as her vision of a real man. In this Macbeth, the only convincing that he needs is to be told how to murder the King while he thrusts inside her. Seeds are planted, I suppose, but they aren’t psychological. Eventually, scorpions do befall Macbeth’s mind, but it never seems as though his mind wasn’t a nest of scorpions to begin with.
In true lean and mean fashion, this might be the most propulsive adaptation of Shakespeare as Kurzel pushes acts of murder and moments of pensive thought forward with strong associative editing. Orders from King Duncan (David Thewlis) and Lady Macbeth are overlaid with Macbeth’s actions, and his moments of questioning those actions are overlaid with Duncan naming his son the new Prince of Scotland (Jack Reynor). This fluid technique does enhance the feeling of Macbeth being boxed in by orders from the King and orders from his ambitious wife, but one moment of moral reflection does not a tragedy make.
Visually, Macbeth is stunning. Battles do indeed appear to be hell on earth. The first major battle is blood and ash and the second occurs within a glowing wall of embers. Perhaps by starting with an ashen look, Kurzel—and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Animal Kingdom)—are using visual shorthand to show that Macbeth’s soul was already burnt down to nothing when we meet him; that the milk of human kindness had already been drained, and only hell awaited him. But without expressing his fears and hesitations, or indulging in Shakespeare’s more playful passages of language, this Macbeth is too bleak and hollow to feel sorrow for.Fassbender is fierce and intense; unquestionably a man from the outset. And his Lady is less unsexed and more specifically woman.And as such, it feels weaker as an adaptation of Shakespeare and more like an extremely handsome video game.
Macbeth works best as a sonic and visual calling card for Kurzel. As a director, he may indeed be the next big thing in big cinema. He plunged the dagger into Shakespeare to assume that position, sure, but he definitely does have the visual goods. I soon might be one to chant “All hail, Kurzel!” But for now, I, like the tragic Macduffs, do feel that something is amiss in this throned Macbeth.