Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: "Macbeth"

Director: Justin Kurzel
Runtime: 120 minutes

There's rugged beauty in everything from the landscapes to the people in Macbeth, but sadly little poetry. Australian director Justin Kurzel has made a handsome and gritty adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best and most iconic plays, but never pushes beyond the surface of the Bard's language. In an odd twist, the best and most consistent aspect of this Macbeth comes from the lone non-native English-speaker among the principal players. In fleeting moments, Kurzel's stylstic ambitions find harmony with the source material, but these instance are the exception, rather than the norm.

Not much has been changed in this latest telling of the Scottish play. There are some key omissions (no "double double" chant from the witches; no "stars, hide your light" from Macbeth), but when it comes to words, Kurzel has hardly bastardized the material. At least on the page. Right from the start, this Macbeth strains for ominous atmospherics through Adam Arkapaw's rich, primordial images and Jed Kurzel's sinister, droning score. Were this an experimental, dialogue-free production, things might have turned out differently. 

Yet when the actors open their mouths to start working their way through the centuries-old dialogue, they fumble. Yes, even Michael Fassbender in the titular role. Most of the cast appear to be saying the words as if at a first glance at the script. There's some authenticity thanks to the guttural, mouth-full-of-glass accents, but no true connection. The words hang there when they should draw one in to this sordid tale as much as the visuals. Yet when Macbeth wonders aloud about whether or not he should kill King Duncan (David Thewlis), none of the source material's complexity registers. Shakespeare chose words carefully. Most of the actors here just try to get through them as if having a banal exchange over coffee.

A pity, then, that there isn't more of Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) in Kurzel's film. The French actress, perhaps because she has to work harder to navigate the dialogue, ends up dominating the entire film. By the time the film is over, you'll be left wanting a revisionist take on the play that centers around Cotillard's interpretation of the character. Without even trying to put on an unnatural accent, she not only gets through the dialogue, but actually sounds as if she truly understands every little nuance of what she's saying. Though this production firmly relegates Lady Macbeth (one of theater's all-time great characters for women) to supporting status, there's no question as to who the star is here. Thankfully, one of the times in which Kurzel's direction works comes at the iconic "Out, damned spot!" sequence, a marvel of simplicity that is mostly done in a lengthy close up. Clad in white robes, illuminated by a pale shaft of wintery light, Cotillard almost makes the whole film worth it just for her work in this one scene. 

Other well-known moments from the play don't fare as well. The witches who deliver Macbeth's prophecy and Banquo's ghost are presented in visually inert scenes that do little to add mystery or distortion. Some allowance can be given to the witches, but when Macbeth addresses Banquo's ghost in a room full of people, it feels as if everyone else can see the specter as well. There's no sense of perspective, and a moment that should unsettle and haunt instead plods along. 

In trying so hard to pump up the visual component of his adaptation, Kurzel often misses the power of the dialogue. Had he stripped the text to the core and cut out as much dialogue as possible, this wouldn't have been such an issue. But in trying to keep the dialogue while also shoe-horning in visual flourishes (super slow-motion! apocalyptic red filters on the camera!), the film feels at odds with itself. Macbeth's talk of "sound and fury/signifying nothing," has, unfortunately, rarely felt more appropriate.

Grade: C+

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