MOVIE REVIEW: Macbeth

(Image courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival) 

51st Chicago International Film Festival Highlight special presentation

"MACBETH"-- 4 STARS

When you have a film adaptation of a William Shakespeare play as arresting, brawny, and commanding as Justin Kurzel's "Macbeth," one has to throw the theater snob rant out the window.  They are exactly like the "book is better than the movie crowd" only more under-served.   We get it.  No cinematic adaptation is ever going to satisfy everyone.  My advice is get over the nit-picking and soak in a movie and treat it as a different medium entirely than the static stage.  This new "Macbeth" is an event, not a play, and a darn good one.

This tale is well-told and your high school English teacher will be proud if you remember it.  To refresh the forgetful, "Steve Jobs" lead Michael Fassbender stars as the titular Scottish lord.  Macbeth and his closest subordinate emerge from the battlefield victorious, concluding a civil war.  After the battle and its heavy losses, the two are approached by a group of witches who share the prophecy that Macbeth will be the future king and that Panquo will be the father of kings.  True to the omens, Macbeth's distinguished victory earns him the new, elevated title from King Duncan (David Thewlis) of the Thane of Cawdor, next in line for the crown.  Macbeth and his army return home to host King Duncan for a night of celebration.

He tells his wife, Lady Macbeth, played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, of the witches' predictions from the battlefield.  She pushes for the prophecy to come true and convinces her husband to assassinate King Duncan in his sleep and ascend to the throne.  This diabolical ambition sets more calamity in motion.  Macbeth must contend with guilt, the pressure to protect his rule, and the mounting future opposition of his rival Macduff (Sean Harris, the recent villain of "Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation") and Malcolm (Jack Reynor of "Transformers: Age of Extinction"), King Duncan's deposed son.

As solid as any casting is for a film adaptation, the scholars and ranters will chime in with questionable errors in line readings and performance cues different from the shouted stage.  Technically, the only accurate Shakespearean plays were the ones the playwright himself put on stage over 400 years ago.  Any scholarly attitude is based on other scholarly attitudes that came before you.  Each interpretation should get to mold their own edification and artistry.  

That is precisely why you cannot fault the presence of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.  Their creative choices will be curious to die-hard aficionados, but bewitching (pun intended) to the rest.  The two esteemed actors whisper more line readings than they bellow and pause more often than tradition.  The effect plays out well on-screen.  The differences of tone and pace add to the madness and the menace of the story's dark dealings.  Unlike the play, not everything is dialed to 11 and rushed to completion.  The narrative becomes more psychological without losing anything emphatic.  Credit for allowing the cast to expand these horizons goes to Australian director Justin Kurzel, in just his sophomore feature film.

Grizzled to the core, "Macbeth" has been brought to the silver screen with remarkable cinematic detail.  The film was shot on location in the raw natural landscapes and castles of the Isle of Skye in far northern Scotland and the Bamburgh area of England's Northumberland.  Grabbing ever inch of landscape, Australian Adam Arkapow's striking cinematography is the best this critic has seen to date all year.  His watchful camera lathers every scene with differing speeds and a slyly colorful palette of fire, mud, and mist.  The orange-tinged final battle set in a enveloped field of burning ciders and smoke is jaw-dropping.  Composer Jed Kurzel, the director's brother, adds to the atmosphere with a bold and twisted musical score that rumbles right on cue.

Atmosphere and aesthetics will only get a film so far, especially something based on Shakespeare.  What has to be present more than anything else are the themes and motifs of the original source.  The streamlined adaptation from debuting screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso includes all of the requisite ambition, evil, murder, witchcraft, upheaval, and failures of moral order necessary to be a true "Macbeth."  The film is constructed with tactful efficiency where the themes have plenty of room to breathe and exist without killing attention or sacrificing poignancy or brutality.

"Macbeth" may be Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, but it is one of the darkest and most sinister.  It's a tough sell.  No one ever says, "Hey, let's go see a Shakespearean tragedy where everybody dies!" and gets a bus load of people running for the popcorn line.  It's supposed to be dark and even unpleasant.  What draws you in to this "Macbeth" is the talent of performance, the beauty of cinema's scope put this play on the big screen, and Shakespeare's pervasive themes that spark your intellect.  "Macbeth" maintains those three bedrock qualities without fail.

LESSON #1: DON'T LET YOUR WIFE TALK YOU INTO KILLING SOMEONE-- Your wife can question your manhood and interests all she wants.  She can want a bigger title, a prettier place to live, and better things that she doesn't have.  That doesn't mean you should kill someone to get her those desires.  You are your own man and leader.  

LESSON #2: DON'T LISTEN TO WITCHES EITHER-- See Lesson #1 and replace "wife" with "witch" and ignore their chaos and conflict.  In full disclaimer, you are not allowed to do that in real-life conversation and labeling.

LESSON #3: IT IS AWFULLY DIFFICULT TO COVER MURDER WITH MORE MURDER-- The act of murder shatters moral order and natural order.  It is rarely justifiable and always carries accountability.  Those effects are multiplied when the body count escalates by your hand.      

LESSON #4: THE DAMAGING CONSUMPTION OF AMBITION-- The misplaced political ambition of Macbeth as a dominant trait constricts him like an anaconda.  His confidence and initiative is replaced by fear and paranoia.  His vision and leadership is replaced with guilt and tyranny.  Ambition, in all forms, has its limits.

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