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Posts Tagged ‘Justin Kurzel’

Yet another sign that winter is on the way comes in the form of someone having a crack at the Bard. On this occasion it is Justin Kurzel setting his sights on Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays yet one not much explored by film-makers since the Polanski version well over 40 years ago. Unlike many a modern go at Shakespeare, and indeed Kurosawa’s feudal Japan-set take on the story, Kurzel sticks to the original mise-en-scene, more or less.

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Quite how close to Shakespeare Kurzel keeps his movie overall is an interesting question, though. The story is the one you may already know – a witches’ prophecy lures fearless warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) into contemplating the death of the liege (David Thewlis) he has always been loyal to and usurping his position, although not without some definite encouragement from his ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard), culminating in some radical new ideas in landscape gardening and a damn big fight. However, the director sets out his store for his vision of the play with the uncompromising decision to open the film with an establishing shot of a dead baby.

This initially seems a bit shocking and possibly tasteless, but it’s so much in tune with everything else going on in the film that you sort of forget about it (and it is in line with a fairly common reading of the play, that either Lady M has post-natal depression or has actually lost a child). Dead parents, dead children, death, blood, and madness: this might well be a very good place to make a joke about just why this is called the Scottish play, but I have the preservation of the Union to consider.

This is not a film which makes much effort to step lightly around such matters, nor indeed leave much to the imagination. Unlike, say, the Kurosawa version, in which most of the bloodletting occurs discreetly off-camera, here Macbeth’s assorted victims are gorily carved up on camera – when they’re not being burnt at the stake, anyway. As well as Thewlis, said victims include a not especially-recognisable Paddy Considine as Banquo and Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, with Sean Harris as Macduff, also going through the wringer somewhat before events are concluded.

So you can’t fault the casting of the supporting roles – nor is there much wrong with the two leads, which almost goes without saying where Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are concerned. For once Cotillard does not quite dominate the screen – one can almost sense the colossal struggle she is engaged in to keep her natural accent under control – but she does very good work in bringing the necessary vulnerability and pathos to a character who it’s too easy to just treat as evil incarnate.

Fassbender, however, doesn’t just give a proper movie star performance as Macbeth, but does a proper acting job as well. Macbeth isn’t just a crazed tyrant in this film: he’s a man who can’t quite bring himself to accept the consequences of his actions, and as a result has to treat everything going on around him as a bit of a joke. Fassbender makes his bonkers joviality rather disturbing to watch, but also offers flashes of the man in torment within. He’s not what you’d call sympathetic, exactly, but neither is he a complete monster.

Neither of these are exactly radical interpretations of the main characters, but then on one level this is not the boldest or most innovative take on Macbeth, either. The film offers a few interesting choices of staging – the witches are so utterly down-to-earth, almost mundane in their presentation, that one is almost surprised when Macbeth and Banquo give them a second look, while to its credit the film does find a new and unusual way for Birnham Forest to come to Dunsinane at the climax. But on the whole it’s a very orthodox presentation of the play, for all its savagery and darkness.

However, as a piece of film, Macbeth manages to be extremely distinctive – in many ways this looks pretty much like you’d expect a lowish-budget art house adaptation of Shakespeare to, with dour, naturalistic cinematography, what look suspiciously like non-professional actors in some of the minor roles, and strange wild stabs of what I can only call visual pretension – battle scenes keep slipping into slo-mo, vivid filters make it look as though the air itself is turning to blood, and so on. Overall, though, the thing comes together to be a singular and coherent vision that feels entirely appropriate for his particular play.

But is it a completely successful one? The generally-positive reviews Macbeth has received suggests so, but I found it to be a tough film to engage with – it’s just so relentlessly bleak and doom-laden, with most of the directorial and dramatic pyrotechnics held back for the final act. A little less fidelity to Shakespeare earlier on might have a resulted in a more balanced offering. As it is, the film becomes increasingly more impressive as it goes on, and it’s certainly well-worth watching, but it never consistently feels like a movie in its own right, just an extremely accomplished adaptation of a well-staged play.

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