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Blood and the Bard


Macbeth (MA). Director: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Daniel Thewlis. 113 minutes

If you have seen South Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel's relentlessly grim and violent Snowtown, you will have some idea of what to expect from the director's take on Shakespeare's Scottish Play. Kurzel was handpicked for the project by the film's producers, and its star Michael Fassbender, on the strength of Snowtown, and no doubt he has delivered exactly what they wanted: a sublime but grim and violent rendition, grimmer and more violent even than Roman Polanski's infamous 1971 version. Polanski's has been the standard-bearer adaptation for the past four decades. Kurzel's may well be about to displace it.

Aside from anything else it is a thorougly enthralling cinematic experience. (Come awards season, expect it to be up for a sackfull of gongs in technical categories.) Notable in this regard is the work of visionary Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who has lensed some of the best local films of the past decade, including Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, and recently worked on Jane Campion's Top of the Lake TV miniseries and HBO's True Detective. His work on Macbeth is a feat of mythic grandeur, its stylisation (use of extreme slow-mo, artful shot composition) severe and distinctive but not distracting.

Of course, any Shakespearean production is going to live and die on the quality of its performances, and in this regard too Kurzel's Macbeth has claims to being a masterpiece. Fassbender, for whom the film is a star vehicle, finds deep wells of derangement and inner conflict within the fallen hero Macbeth. Considine is deeply sympathetic as the ill-fated Banquo; his betrayal by Macbeth is that of a friend who senses he is about to be betrayed, but remains loyal nonetheless. And Harris' Macduff, Macbeth's rival who penetrates his duplicity and is punished for it in brutal, sadistic fashion, is rugged and imposing.

The film rarely puts a foot wrong, the notable exception being its treatment of Lady Macbeth. Cotillard's performance is powerful, but the filmmakers seem unsure of the dimensions of the character, and leave her somewhere in the realm of caricature (of Devious Woman and, later, of Fallen Woman). In particular, her 'Out damned spot' soliloquy is oddly decontextualised, which diminishes and confuses the circumstances of her subsequent death. That said, the film's conflation of the Macbeths' conspiracy to commit regicide with an act of discreet marital sex is a potent image of their moral codependency.

All told, it is a faithful adaptation, its twists on the source material tending to illuminate rather than obfuscate. For example, the manner in which 'Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane' — a portent of Macbeth's doom — is both more visually spectacular and more tangibly real than in other adaptations. Macbeth is a tragedy set in motion by a prophesy; in Kurzel's version the portents keep coming until the breathtaking final moments, which, while evoking Arthurian legend as much as the Bard himself, indicate that as 'stepped in blood' as these events have been, there is yet still more to be spilled.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Macbeth, Justin Kurzel, Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Daniel Thewlis



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Existing comments

Must see movie, although the trailer does hint at the grimness. I consulted that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, about actresses who've played Lady Macbeth. An impressive line-up. Defining Lady Macbeth as caricature would never place this film as "masterpiece".

Pam | 30 September 2015  

jettisoning gross antisemitism, the three witches deserve a mention surely for that cookbook recipe of culinary delights [subtitles de rigueur] And of course Spanish inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías always searched Basque homes for toads. as evidence of witchcraft "WITCH. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the caldron boil and bake; Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,— For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. ALL. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble. 3 WITCH. Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf; Witches' mummy; maw and gulf Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark; Root of hemlock digg'd i the dark; Liver of blaspheming Jew; Gall of goat, and slips of yew"

Father John George | 02 October 2015  

Omitting witches from Macbeth is akin forsooth to expunging chariots from Ben Hur or guns from High Noon!

Father John George | 02 October 2015  

Eat your heart out KFC franchise!

Father John George | 07 October 2015  

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