Review: In this new ‘Macbeth,’ the acting soars and the violence blazes
Welcome to 11th century Scotland, a land of stark, sprawling, mist-enshrouded vistas at the time of a bloodthirsty quest for power.
Moviegoers eager to experience the timeless power of William Shakespeare’s masterworks but daunted by the prospect of all that complex Elizabethan-era dialogue may find Justin Kurzel’s new film version of “Macbeth” to be just the ticket.
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Although the script adaptation by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie may streamline, at times twist, the play’s original text, this famed tale of ambition, paranoia and murder still bursts with archaic verbiage and cadence. But Kurzel’s bold and viscerally thrilling approach along with a brutal, battle-heavy story line should ensure that even less initiated viewers will find themselves immersed in this classic medieval tragedy, a kind of “Macbeth” for the “Game of Thrones” crowd.
Add in two of our strongest contemporary actors — Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard — as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and on screen Shakespeare is rarely this compelling. (Even though several film and TV versions of “Macbeth” have been produced over the last few decades, the last one to garner major attention was the 1971 feature directed by Roman Polanski. Orson Welles, in 1948, and Akira Kurosawa, in 1957, as “Throne of Blood,” also notably interpreted “Macbeth” on film.)
At its center is the warrior lord named Macbeth, based on the true-life king Macbeth of Scotland. Following the death of his young son, a gruesome civil war battle — stunningly shot as a near-ballet of death — and the prophecy of three observant witches, Macbeth stabs to death his longtime ally, King Duncan (David Thewlis). In doing so, Macbeth, who’s been encouraged by the conniving Lady Macbeth, trumps Duncan’s heir, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), to become the new king of Scotland.
But it’s a case of be careful what you kill for, as, once ensconced in the soaring royal castle, Macbeth becomes unhinged with suspicion and mad with power. This leads him to order the deaths of his onetime lieutenant, Banquo (Paddy Considine), and later, the family of local royal official — and Macbeth’s foil — Macduff (Sean Harris).
Ultimately, Malcolm, supported by Macduff, leads an army to take down Macbeth. In a fever-pitched battle — bathed in a dazzling palette of fiery oranges — Macbeth faces off against Macduff. For anyone who doesn’t already know how this fierce tale ends, I repeat: It’s a tragedy.
Kurzel (“The Snowtown Murders”) keeps things moving at a propulsive pace as he mixes elements of reality, hyper-reality and the supernatural to stirring effect. Superb support by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Animal Kingdom;” “McFarland, USA”), editor Chris Dickens (“Slumdog Millionaire,” 2012’s “Les Misérables”), costume designer Jacqueline Durran (“Atonement,” “Mr. Turner”) and composer Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother), plus other fine tech contributors, make the film a feast for the eyes and ears.
But it’s the gripping and verbally deft cast, led by a swaggering, formidably brooding Fassbender and a searing and poignant Cotillard, that may emerge most memorable here. Hopefully, the movie’s award-worthy leads will find their places amid this year’s crowded field of potential nominees.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence and brief sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles
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