A Review of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth: A Powerful and Visually Stunning Adaptation of Shakespeare


Film: Macbeth
Director: Justin Kurzel
Primary Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis
US Release Date: 11 December 2015

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is hardly the first film adaptation of Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy, but that doesn’t mean that viewers will have seen anything quite like it before. Though this Macbeth may have a limited appeal, it boasts two remarkable lead performances as well as some of the finest cinematography audiences will experience all year. With his moody and incredibly cinematic take on The Scottish Play, Kurzel transports viewers into a dark, bloody, and visually arresting world that captivates the mind and sears the soul. And though the film adds to and enhances much that is in its source material, it never disrespects the work of the Bard.

Macbeth is the second full-length film from Australian director Justin Kurzel. Though his first film, The Snowtown Murders, still sits untouched in my Netflix queue, the critical buzz surrounding that film paired with my own experience of this one both make it clear that he is a director to keep an eye on.

As with any adaptation, Kurzel’s film represents but one possible interpretation of its source material. Fortunately, this interpretation is faithful enough to Shakespeare while also demonstrating a distinct and worthwhile creative vision. While the film’s script is (for the most part) taken straight from Shakespeare, it’s pacing, visuals, performances, and score are all dripping with Kurzel’s influence.

Much of that influence serves to enhance the darkness, the brutality, and the emotional force of the film. There is something undeniably alluring about this Macbeth, but Kurzel also does a fantastic job of laying bare the deepest horrors of his source material for all to see. I have not yet seen many versions of Macbeth, but I have read the play a number of times, and Kurzel’s film brought it to life for me in new and unforgettable ways. When studying and writing about the play in school, I understood its darkness and its tragedy, but I never really felt its bone-chilling horror. Kurzel’s Macbeth changed this for me, and I’ll never regard the play in quite the same way now that I’ve seen this film.

Macbeth is haunting, engrossing, and visceral, and it powerfully portrays the madness, the guilt, and desperation of its various characters. In fact, with its brutal depictions of violence, its intensity, and its bold visuals, Macbeth reminds me a bit of the work of Nicolas Winding Refn. And since Refn is one of my favorite directors, I most certainly mean this as a compliment.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw has a lot to do with Macbeth’s success. Arkapaw recently worked on the first season of True Detective and, like Kurzel, he is a filmmaker to watch. Whether he’s depicting bloody scenes of war or more intimate and quiet scenes indoors, Arkapaw brings everything in Macbeth to life in a way that captivates and demands to be felt by the film’s viewers.

In fact, the single best thing about Kurzel’s Macbeth is the way that it looks and is shot. Macbeth’s visuals are beautiful and brutal, haunting and bold. With his use of slow-motion and color filters, Arkapaw infuses the film with intensity and artistry while significantly increasing its potential to impact viewers. Thanks largely to Arkapaw, Scotland in the film feels far more like some otherworldly hell than it does like a place out of history, and this fact greatly enhances the strange and unnerving mood of the play. In this Macbeth, even the air itself seems to weigh heavily on those that it touches, and this is largely thanks to its inspired camerawork.   

The overall mood, atmosphere, and impact of the film are further enhanced by Jed Kurzel’s ominous and chilling score.

Kurzel’s Macbeth is also notable for its performances. Though some of the supporting cast members may run the risk of being forgettable, Fassbender and Cotillard shine as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Fassbender is absolutely perfect for this film. Not only is he one of today’s best leading actors, but he also has an incredible knack for playing characters who are unhinged and hard to like. With Macbeth, Fassbender reinforces his reputation as someone who chooses powerful roles, who embraces the challenging, and who brings an undeniable intensity and strength of presence to the films that he is in. Here, he makes Macbeth’s madness and exhaustion palpable while serving as a suitably weighty anchor for the entire film. Meanwhile, Cotillard’s powerful, icy, and beautifully restrained portrayal of Lady Macbeth works just as well.

For all its merits—and they are many—Macbeth does have its potential problems. Perhaps the most frustrating among these is the fact that a few of the actors seem to rush or almost mumble their lines in a way that can make them difficult to understand. For the few who have recently read the play, this may not be an issue, but I imagine that a number of viewers will find themselves wishing that this undeniably well-crafted film happened to come with subtitles.  

On a related note, Macbeth is in many ways a fantastic and unforgettable film, but it will also fail to appeal to a good chunk of viewers; and if someone is for some reason entirely unfamiliar with the play itself, then he or she may find little to love in this film beyond its visuals.

It’s also somewhat inevitable that some who know Shakespeare well will question some of Kurzel’s interpretative choices. For instance, the way in which this film downplays the weirdness of the weird sisters helps it to feel more timeless than it might otherwise while also encouraging viewers to focus more strongly on Macbeth himself. As valid as such decisions might be, some simply will not respond well to all of them.

 As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth succeeds. As a powerful and striking creative effort, Macbeth succeeds also. Minor issues aside, the film is mesmerizing, savagely stylish, and intelligently realized, and in addition to its strong lead performances, Kurzel’s film also boasts a look and feel that viewers are unlikely to forget anytime soon. When the film ended, I immediately wanted to experience it again; unfortunately, I’ll probably have to wait until it’s available on Blu-ray to do so.

Until Next Time
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