This newest adaptation of Macbeth by director Justin Kurzel is beautifully rendered and competently acted but, unfortunately, completely and utterly hamstrung. Swords fly and sweat drips, but after an hour of not having any idea what was going on, I almost fell asleep.
The movie looks incredible. It’s rare that I’m taken aback by costumes but Macbeth certainly did that with incredibly original and interesting designs. The cinematography was beautiful, reminding me very much of Cary Fukunaga’s lauded work on True Detective, and with some inventive use of colour filters. The locations were stunning with almost every scene shrouded by blasted highland and billowing fog, often shot in detailed slo-mo.
But all good films must actually be good. It is not enough to simply look good. As I’m sure you all know, Macbeth is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s four-hundred year old The Tragedy of Macbeth, which contemporarily commented on England’s then king. Shakespeare went to great effort to modernise the English in his plays for the general public rather than the usual bourgeoisie audience, but this is not language which is easily understandable to the modern cinemagoer in 2015.
However, this movie was advertised to me before my showing of The Martian. It’s been sold to me via banner ad on the Internet Movie Database. This film was targeted, snobbishly, at people who wouldn’t understand it. Almost every line of dialogue in the film was impossible to understand to the untrained ear, and despite having read and seen adaptations of the play myself, I had no idea what was going on. What gall, that the producers of this film would insist (rightly) that the story of Macbeth has great value but then present it with major characters and events from the play missing, in ancient language, entirely in that modern grumble-acting, and in a thick Scottish accent. How on Earth were cinema punters meant to enjoy a film which so neatly made itself nonsensical to them?
I was excited to see this film largely because of the involvement of Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Despite not being able to understand her lines, Cotillard gave a brilliant physical performance and her impassioned soliloquy after the death of King Duncan almost brought me to tears simply through body language. Fassbender did not quite pull off the same feat, particularly noticeable at the end of the film where much of the action of the original play was exchanged for a few garbled lines of his, leaving the story’s conclusion empty.
But body language and cinematography can only go so far. Shakespeare is so important and beloved because he had no respect for tradition and no desire to pander to the privileged. This film, understandable only to those privileged enough to be highly educated, worships Shakespearean tradition and therefore, paradoxically, Shakespeare would have hated it. Macbeth may paint the walls red with the blood of his enemies, but the film is more like watching it dry.
2 out of 5 stars