Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Marion Cotillard) have just lost their young son, but there is no time for mourning as the war between King Duncan of Scotland (David Thewlis) and his rival to the throne Macdonwald (Hilton McRae) is still raging, and Macbeth has pledged his allegiance to Duncan as one of the monarch's most savage combatants. So it is that when the enemy forces amass to square off against the King's men, they meet with a crushing defeat as they are overwhelmed and Macdonwald has his head chopped off by a bloodthirsty Macbeth. Duncan is very pleased, but when his finest soldier is out with his best friend Banquo (Paddy Considine), there is a fateful encounter with four witches…
That's right, you had a bargain with this adaptation of the William Shakespeare play when there was an extra witch free of charge thrown in seemingly for the hell of it, hell being very apt for one of The Bard's grimmest and mysterious works as the characters plot against one another in ways that erupt into bloody violence for however long it takes the drama to unfold. In this case it was just under two hours, so a (damned?) spot of editing had been done, but Australian director Justin Kurzel (the second Aussie to helm an adaptation of this material in around ten years) came across as more interested in allowing the audience to interpret the action through his stark, moody visuals more than the dialogue of the source, which was retained to a point.
Fair enough, not every version of Shakespeare was going to rely one hundred percent on the spoken word, indeed it was often better if they didn't, but Kurzel brought up a problem with his approach when he had apparently directed his cast to mutter and whisper the portentous lines for the most part, presumably to make them more cinematic when in the theatre a more declamatory style was preferred, so at least the audience could hear the actors at the back of the theatre. However, it backfired when the dark poetry of the original was pretty much lost in mumbling or casually garbled enunciation, leaving the audience wondering what the characters were actually saying, a further issue if you were not familiar with every word.
Certainly there has been much of Macbeth, the play, that has entered the common parlance thanks to Will's turn of phrase, so every so often you might recognise a bit and think oh yeah, I remember hearing that somewhere, yet for long stretches you would be straining to make out what was supposed to be said. Fassbender, sad to say, while having nothing to prove as far as his talent went for screen thespianism, was one of the worst offenders, mastering the Scottish accent to a fair degree but sounding as if he was concentrating so hard on getting the inflections correct that his performance suffered, unused to delivering dialogue in that style. It said a lot that Cotillard, a Frenchwoman, managed to be better understood and she was not acting in her native tongue, albeit not in the Scots burr either.
Although occasionally you would get a performer who seemed to have more of a handle on the material, for example David Hayman looked promising until you realised he had about five of his lines retained from the text, or Thewlis who wasn't bad but obviously considering his role didn't exactly hang around. The idea of Macbeth as a tyrant was promoted, but Kurzel preferred the more psychological examination as the pitch black depths of his and his wife's souls were attributed to feeling guilty about their accumulating crimes but also upset over the death of their son, an addition that seemed unnecessary - were we really supposed to feel so sorry for two of the greatest villains in theatre? It indicated fashionable revisionism was the order of the day and meant what you tended to fall back on were a selection of slick visuals as the Scottish scenery stepped in to pull its weight as far as the glowering power of the play was concerned. If this had been a silent movie, they might have been on to something, alas, it was not. Music by Jed Kurzel.