MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Epic Historical Drama/ Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis, David Hayman, Maurice Roëves, Brian Nickels, Ross Anderson, James Harkness, Seylan Mhairi Baxter, Lynn Kennedy, Kayla Fallon, Amber Rissmann, Lochlann Harris, Hilton McRae, Scott Dymond, Rebecca Benson, Gerard Miller, Roy Sampson/ Runtime: 113 minutes
I think it is a fairly safe bet to make that, out of the entire catalogue of plays penned by little-known playwright William Shakespeare, Macbeth is the one that is seen as the darkest out of all of them. Though given that this is a tale that deals with insanity, witches, combat, schemes, and bloody homicide I can hardly call this that much of a surprise. Yet even though there have been quite a few cinematic takes on this iconic story from one that had Orson “Unicron” Welles to one that made the choice to place this is a crime ridden Melbourne, Australia to an, at the time of this writing, upcoming one helmed by one half of the Coen Brothers and starring Denzel Washington in the lead role, there is one stab of the narrative knife that I feel definitely deserves your attention. That of course being the 2015 take on this property helmed by one Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender in the titular role. Indeed here is a movie that, despite a few flaws scattered throughout, is a powerfully acted and phenomenally made film that is riveting, bloody, and dynamic all in the best ways. Indeed it may have only been Kurzel’s second film at the time, but he manages to take this iconic play and present it in a way that works as both a riveting tribute that would make The Bard proud, but also his own winning interpretation as well thus making for one adaptation you should definitely check out if given the chance to do so.
The plot is as follows: Taking us back in time to a chaotic period in Scottish history where literally every man and his brother to say nothing of a couple of foreign powers was vying for the royal throne or at least fighting for someone who was, we quickly see that Macbeth is both a loyal soldier as well as a kinsman to the current King, a lad by the name of Duncan. When our story starts proper we see that, in the aftermath of a particularly bloody yet well-fought skirmish, Macbeth is quickly and deservedly ordained by Duncan as Thane (or Baron) of Glamis. However for as wonderful this honor is and should be for our “hero”, we see that he still feels like he deserves more. A problem that will present itself with a possible solution in the form of a group of otherworldly women foretelling to him that Macbeth will one day be King himself. Thus, with some firm and not exactly subtle prodding by his wife, we see Macbeth decide to take matters into his own hands and brutally and viscerally butchers the King in his sleep and then nabs the royal crown for himself. Yet we soon see this assumed to be quick and simplistic coup soon start to show a problem or 5. An issue mostly because Macbeth and his wife start having to deal with their sanity and peace of mind be seriously attacked from within by the guilt of what they have done. Thus if our “hero” is to keep his crown, his kingdom, and most important, his head he is going to have to resort to drastic measures. Measures that may be messy, may be heartbreaking, and may be bloody, but most assuredly will bring Macbeth and his wife closer and closer to toppling headfirst into the abyss of madness….
Now perhaps the most astonishing thing I can say about this take on The Bard’s most infamous play is that honestly this take is operating at the pinnacle of its abilities when it makes the choice to just put Shakespeare’s dialogue by the way side. I mean this is one adaptation that actually does check off all the boxes that are key to this narrative and Shakespeare’s way with language is most assuredly present for all to see. At the same time though, this is one slice of cinematic pie there are a fair amount of scenes where dialogue is actually omitted and astonishingly these moments work phenomenally with particular regard to the moment where our “hero” first crosses paths with the ominous quartet of seemingly sinister female oracles and which everything that needs to be conveyed to us is done by the women and their chilling attitude as well as the nonverbal responses of our protagonist. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: the helmer of this particular slice of cinematic pie is one who wisely is able to comprehend that the product he is working on is an actual movie and not something that operates as kin to the filmed production of Hamilton that one can find on Disney+ and takes full advantage of the medium with some visual work that is downright incredible. Not satisfied with just that however, we see that the utilization of the camera might be fairly simplistic, but how this film chooses to use colors and the lighting of the various sets is top-notch in every sense of the word. Plus the wonderful choice to use genuine sets and actually costume the cast in fashions from presumably that era really does a wonderful job of immersing you that much further into the world the movie wishes for you to witness. Finally, we also see that there are some action beats in this and despite not making too much of a dent in the overall runtime they are also quite gorgeous to behold as well. Suffice it to say then that for how phenomenally well this director’s helmsmanship and visual flair prove to be at regaling us with this distinct narrative more so than save perhaps one other ingredient it can prove to be a fair degree of out of left field when, after a long time of nothing but silence, every single character starts speaking in sonnet. I mean I know it might be sacrilege for me to utter, but I feel this movie might have worked significantly better if they whittled away at the script just a wee bit more and just kept the more integral bits of dialogue and instead permitted the vibrant atmosphere to carry this movie on its shoulders.
Now it should be noted that quite a few takes on the works of The Bard have sadly not been as good as they could have been due to the fact that the actors cast in the respective roles literally stumble through Shakespeare’s writing as if it’s Martian. Thankfully, the 2015 take on Macbeth is not saddled with such a terrible dilemma as this film has one heck of a cast headed up by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard and they are simply terrific. Indeed as the titular character we see that Fassbender gives a low-key yet potent performance in the role of a guy who is propelled forward to achieve what he feels is rightfully his only to be pushed to the brink of madness by equal parts paranoia, anxiety, and just downright ruthlessness toward anyone he perceives as a threat to his continual reign. Yet perhaps his crowning (pun intended) moment has got to be his take on the infamous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. Indeed it really truly is electrifying in the best ways possible and Fassbender gives one heck of a performance. On the other side of the coin is Marion Cotillard who is downright magnetic in the role of Lady Macbeth. Yes in some aspects it does feel like how important this character is has been knocked down a notch or two especially when making a comparison to the original play. However even with that in mind there is no denying that Cotillard still gives one potent and engaging performance especially in her final scenes in the film. As for the supporting cast, it should be noted that there are some wonderful performances on display amongst the bunch including the always reliable David Thewlis who is good albeit highly underutilized in this as King Duncan, Jack Reynor who gives a fairly good performance as Duncan’s son Malcolm, and Sean Harris (Solomon Lane from the last 2 Mission: Impossible movies) who is also absolutely fantastic and riveting to watch as Macduff especially near the end of the film as he is out for blood towards Macbeth for all the atrocities he has committed throughout the film. Unfortunately for all the good that this co-starring trinity brings to the table there are also a pair of good co-starring roles that are unfortunately not given their proper due. The first of these is the always delightful Paddy Considine as Macbeth’s most trusted brother-in-arms Banquo and, despite a game performance from Considine, the character just isn’t as fleshed out as he deserves to be thus making the arc his character goes through with the titular character in this less soul-crushing than it most assuredly should be. In all fairness though at least he gets a better end of things than the incredible Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff. This is because whilst the arc of both this character and her kids is most the definitely the same as the one from the play itself, the visceral and gut-punch of an impact in regards to the hellish odyssey this character goes on was startlingly muted especially when taking into account just what occurs with her. Yes she does suffer on a fairly eloquent level, but other than that I definitely feel like there was more scenes with her that tragically wound up being cut than permitted to remain in the final film. It also doesn’t help that when you have a group of actors who are so skilled at giving you a three dimensional performance based fairly significantly on physicality that we see that the overwhelming amount of dialogue also doesn’t work in favor of the performers and their contributions to the film either. I mean it really doesn’t thankfully sap a whole lot out of the performances, but at the same time this is yet another case in point for this film where decreasing the dialogue to the bare necessities would most likely have contributed to the potency of the truly riveting and visceral performances this slice of cinematic pie has seen fit to gift us with.
All in all though and at the end of the day I can easily say that, flaws with this slice of cinematic pie aside, there can be no denying that this film’s immensely talented cast and crew have managed to bring vividly to life a take on one of the more if not the most infamous play ever penned by one of the most famous playwrights of all time that is easily essential viewing for both the Shakespeare enthusiast and the English high school student who is just thankful that they don’t have to read the play and can just utilize the 2-3 days of watching this movie in class as an excuse to sit in the back and quietly nap. As it is though this slice of cinematic pie, operating as an arresting and riveting tribute mix to such a cinematic dignitary as Stanley Kubrick and iconic theater director Julie Taymor, is one that is dirty and visceral in ways that have remained with me ever since the first time I saw this to say nothing of one that showcases a chilly and disturbing aspect of the human psyche that we all have and some have used to horrific effect in some way or another. Suffice it to say then with the aid of a top-flight cast, a riveting musical accompaniment from Jed Kurzel, some jawdroppingly beautiful cinematography work from Adam Arkapaw, and engaging work at the helm by Justin Kurzel, the 2015 take on Macbeth is a powerful film in how it forces you to place your courage and integrity front and center whilst challenging you to look at avenues of the human mind and heart we dare not traverse for ourselves lest we find something there that might cause us to go down the very same road as our driven to madness protagonist. On a scale of 1-5 I give Macbeth “2015” a solid 3.5 out of 5.