Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is visually stunning. The photography and design are almost too good; they nearly overpower everything else in the film, meaning one comes away not so much with memories of the complete piece but a series of its images seared onto one’s consciousness. Nearly, but not quite.
There is no doubt, though, that look is hugely important to the film. Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and the hair and makeup teams have done exceptional work, and deserve a decent haul come awards seasons.
Although some reviews have commended the film’s “autheticity”, citing mainly the Scottish accents, the film does not in fact attempt to “authentically” render 11th century Scotland, but creates a sometimes disorienting collage of aesthetic and cinematic influences. The obvious Japanese influences are surely a nod to Akira Kurosawa, director of Throne of Blood, 1957, one of the definitive cinematic adaptations of Macbeth), but the film also draws on less obvious sources for inspiration (there is a distinct Jedi feel to much of the costume design), as well as ones perhaps nearer to hand (the warriors’ woad face paint comes from Braveheart, rather than from historical authenticity).
Much has rightly been written of the compelling central performances of Michael Fassbender and Marian Cotillard and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Cotillard portrays Lady Macbeth as a complex, conflicted character, and Kurzel’s decision, in the film’s opening scene, to make explicit something Shakespeare only hints at (and which I won’t reveal here), gives the couple and their actions an extra emotional depth.
As well as the leading pair, Sean Harris and Elizabeth Debicki as Macduff and Lady Macduff deserve particular praise for their performances — all the more so in Debicki’s case, as the austere abridgement of Shakespeare’s script leaves her character with almost no dialogue.
At the film’s press conference at the Cannes Festival, Fassbender spoke of his attempt to portray Macbeth as a solider with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and speculated about the psychological damage medieval warfare in particular, where there is no quick trigger-pull from distance to dispatch an enemy, and kills must be achieved by bludgeoning or stabbing an opponent with immense force, must have done to its participants. Kurzel stops short of comic-book, Tarantino-style bloodshed and the brutality of the violence is more powerful for it.
The Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, in his kooky but rather fine little book Shakespeare Is Hard But So Is Life (2002), argues that Shakespeare’s tragedies are concerned, at least in part, with incipient modernity (driven by proto-capitalist mercantile economic forms) and the threat it signalled to the feudal order — based on divine right, quasi-theocracy, destiny, and superstition. Macbeth, in his obsession with the witches and their prophecy, is a man grappling with the idea of human agency and our ability to act to shape the future.
This question, of our relationship to our own futures and the legacy of our present actions, looms large in the film. Perhaps its central and most chilling motif is that of children, and specifically offspring — the child soldier who fights and dies alongside Macbeth and returns repeatedly as a ghost; the silent child who accompanies the Weird Sisters; the children’s choir which serenades Duncan with a Gaelic song; Duncan’s own child Malcolm; and of course Fleance (Kurzel’s brings the latter two into rather jarring cinematic engagement in a final “twist” that radically departs from Shakespeare).
Macbeth’s characters become slaves to the prophecies they believe they are acting either to fulfil, or to extirpate. If there is a contemporary moral or political “lesson” to be drawn from this spectacular work of cinematic art, it is perhaps to remember that our future remains unwritten, and that our actions matter — but also that our own society, like Macbeth’s, remains too full of forces who would write that future in blood.