Justin Kurzel has a single feature to his credit – Snowtown (2011), a harrowing, brutal, bleak retelling of an infamous Australian true crime case. Though hard to digest for some given the subject matter, it’s actually a remarkable and powerful film; in fact, it’s one of the finest this country has produced in recent times. For his second outing, Kurzel has made the audacious decision to move abroad to tackle a titan of English literature. But for Macbeth (2015) he’s surrounded himself with an A-list cast and some of the homegrown talent that contributed so heavily to Snowtown’s visceral impact, including cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and his brother and composer Jed Kurzel.
From its bloody opening battle, in which Macbeth pauses amidst the slaughter to ‘listen’ the supernatural prophecy of a trio of witches, to Macbeth’s final reckoning with his tortured mental capacities, Kurzel appropriates the gargantuan literary weight of Shakespearean tale-telling to birth a bold, cinematic statement. This new Macbeth seethes and rages; the instantly recognisable passages are all intact, passionately evoked with rage, despair and venom. And it all feels fresh thanks to the extraordinary range of artists involved in bringing this literary titan to fruition. Arkapaw brought a bleak, ugly urban heartland to vivid life in Snowtown with remarkable, dead-eyed perception. Here he expands his range to make vivid this primordial, ancient world with its almost tangible cold, its haunted fields wreathed with creeping, misty fogs and both subtle and explicit, foreboding uses of red as a harbinger of bloodshed to come.
The performances are uniformly magnificent. Michael Fassbender is unquestionably one of the finest actor in cinema right now. He possesses exactly the kind of presence to bring an epic literary stalwart to life. The gravitas he brings to this interpretation of Macbeth and his turbulent journey from hero on the battlefield to shuddering, conscience-battered king is outstanding. Marion Cotillard is just as good as the venomous Lady Macbeth, her finest moment coming as Arkapaw’s camera hones in for a deep, penetrating gaze as she tearfully nears the end of her own manipulative reign. The deeply wrought emotional damage brought to bear on her is etched into every line and tear on her face.
The only negative of this aesthetically rich production? Subtitles might have been handy at times as due to some of the thick Scottish brogues and garbled enunciation, chunks are wonderful dialogue are often tattered and semi-indecipherable. This minor quibble aside, it’s the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes that bridge the centuries and colour the dramatic reverberations with a terrible kind of shimmering beauty. Everything rings true here – from the thought-provoking opacity of the thornier verbal patches through to the translucent motives of those drunk on the prospect of power – of fulfilling a destiny invented, protected and perverted within. Macbeth is one of the greatest of all literary works and though it’s tougher than ever to find an audience for something as weighty and challenging as this in today’s world, interpretations of timeless classic will always be of literary and cinematic value.