Justin Kurzil’s grim, gorgeous, Macbeth — a dark, out-of-place art flick among the holiday crowd — brings Shakespeare’s philosophical tragedy to new audiences. No one saw it coming, but I’m not complaining. Macbeth gives the done-so-many-times play all the violence and grit it deserves and places the difficult iambic pentameter in a creepy, misty atmosphere. The film is melodramatic but very cool.
The opening battle sequence unfolds like a Woodkid music video. When the three witches appear, they are Ryan Murphy-scary. Standing in a row, staring blankly at the camera, they transcend the traditional “three witches” image — three hags cackling around a cauldron — and turn this creepy archetype modern.
But why Shakespeare? Why Macbeth? Beyond its great look, the film’s only commentary is on, well, itself. It’s a big risk, and maybe a bit too arty and unapproachable. Watching it, you’re aware this film is made for a distinct crowd, and you’re not sure you’d like to go to a party with those people.
There’s also the question of whether or not these old plays should ever be put on the big screen at all. Shakespeare was written for stage melodrama and a completely different world (the play was written in 1606, for god’s sake). For those who study and appreciate theater, Shakespeare is timeless, but I’ve never been convinced they translate effectively to modern cinema (I felt the same about Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo and Juliet, another Shakespeare drama that sustains itself solely on stylistic novelty). Macbeth is lush but cumbersome, pretty yet trudging, and that’s largely an effect of its language.
Fassbender got beefed up for the role and descends into madness in classic Fassbender style, drenched in sweat. Marion Cotillard has proved her ability to do sinister characters well and does it again with her ice-blooded, malevolent, wan-looking Lady Macbeth.
One last frustrating bit: in a play about transformation, they both appear to change very little. They’re grim and intense and a little crazy throughout. Without drastic transformations, Macbeth gives us no space to ask the larger questions that its source material provokes. Does Macbeth turn evil as a result of his greed, or is he a pawn in a grander prophecy? Is he responsible for his actions? Untouched, these questions linger in the bleak credits, which appear as the screen turns red, bathed in blood.