Adapting anything from Shakespeare to the big screen is no easy task. There’s an air of drama through the lifeblood of Shakespeare’s work that lends itself to the theater each piece was written for. Because of this most adaptations shy away from the source material to varying degrees. While the 2015 release directed by Justin Kurzel, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, isn’t a one to one adaptation, it takes liberties in the best way and does so in service of the story. The film captures the heart of the Scottish tragedy and does so in an incredibly cinematic fashion.
All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
There is a lot of ground to cover in the story of Macbeth and Kurzel curtails the film from getting slow or overly lengthy through the magic of film editing. Each scene lasts for the appropriate length. Drama, suspense, and action are all given apt time to play out and sit with the audience. Scenes linger on dastardly decisions, evil machinations, and stunning action sequences when it fits the storytelling beats the audience is meant to feel at any given moment. Quick cuts and overlapping montages create a sense of maniac panic when Macbeth is contemplating the rationality of his actions and mind.
The use of intelligent editing is prevalent throughout the film. Macbeth’s hallucinations are brilliantly brought to life, guiding his actions and twisting his sanity. This editing also helps to keep the iconic monologues in Shakespeare’s original work intact. Rather than keeping the camera on the actors for one continuous shot as they deliver the lengthy dramatic monologues, we are given cuts to striking and moving images that further emphasize the actions taken by the main characters. While editing helps keep some of the monologues engaging there are times when the cameras are let roll over long exposition and it is this contrast that makes those lines stand out even more. The camera will never be completely static though, either moving in or pulling away from an actor, which helps keep the audience engaged.
While on the subject of monologues, the line delivery from everyone involved is superb. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are obvious standouts, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth respectively. The pair have an immense amount of classic Shakespearean dialogue to plow through and they do so flawlessly. I can only imagine how much time was spent practicing their lines over and over again, but it certainly paid off in spades. The odd pronunciations and long-winded soliloquies are delivered earnestly with profound emotion behind them.
Aside from the tongue-twisting dialogue, the acting performances from each of the leading stars are something to be applauded. At the start of the film, Macbeth is hailed as one of the noblest and honest men of Scotland and in just under two hours we see his complete descent into madness. Lady Macbeth at first urges her husband to commit the terrible deeds that will seal their fate, manipulating his emotions, but over time we see her come to regret and condemn their actions. Fassbender and Cotillard give some of their career-best performances, conveying a multitude of emotions and inner turmoil in every scene.
Aside from the fantastic performances, the biggest standout of the film for me is the cinematography. This film is absolutely stunning in every shot. Adam Arkapaw was the cinematographer for the film and his work cannot be commended enough. The beautiful landscape shots set the mood of many of the scenes. The battle scenes are bathed in stark blues at the start, contrasting by striking red and orange hues during the climax. The final battle alone, which sees the characters bathed in orange smoke and fire from the burning Birnam Wood’s, is by itself worth watching the film. The shots are almost entirely washed out in hues of orange and surrounded by smoke, with strong silhouettes showing off the characters.
The use of smoke throughout the film is a powerful visual device. Every encounter with the infamous three witches sees them appearing and then disappearing into the fog. The opening battle scene makes great use of fog, and as already mentioned the climax uses the environment brilliantly. The opening battle is something to immediately pull viewers in, as it’s showcased in cuts between rapid, violent action, and incredible slow-motion shots of soldiers colliding. The colors used throughout the film also help to highlight the mood of each scene. With cool blues being used in earnest at the start, the witch’s scenes have a yellow overtone, and Macbeth’s madness also carries a sickly yellow look to the scenes as his mind unravels. It all comes to a head in the bombastic climax with nothing but rage burning on screen.
The score, composed by Jed Kurzel, is also extremely powerful in establishing the mood of the film. It ranges from being overpoweringly ominous to royally grand, depending on the scene. It’s the backbone of many of the dialogue-free shots, and when paired with the cinematography creates an intense and immediate mood for the audience. The score is as much a character as any of the actors that appear on the screen. It’s intense, operatic, bone-chilling, and moving. It helps to elevate every scene and is also something worth listening to wholly on its own. There is as much emotion packed into the tracks as there is present on-screen at any given time.
Accompanying the top-tier cinematography, outstanding performances, and moving score, are some truly impressive set and costume designs. Everything looks superb and helps ground the affair. The quaint village that Macbeth comes from has a simple life to it, and the epic castle he eventually resides has a foreboding and lifeless presence. Every element of the film works to compliment the other.
While I have heaps and mounds of praise to pile upon this film, it is worth noting that if you aren’t a fan of Shakespeare this film probably isn’t for you. It’s most certainly a love letter to the original work and the dialogue gives no ground in staying true to its roots. Justin Kurzel and everyone involved managed to bring the great tragedy of Macbeth to life in the most cinematically grand way I can imagine. It’s heartbreaking, epic, gory, unnerving, powerful, and pays tribute to the timeless work Shakespeare crafted so long ago. Macbeth is many things, but above all, it is a truly worthy adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic works.
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