It is a tragedy drenched in blood, polluted by the grime of the battlefield and the filth of a power-hungry soul riddled with guilt. Regicide and infanticide play out against the backdrop of the eerily desolate Scottish moors in Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most iconic plays. After premiering at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, director Justin Kurzel’s new take on “the Scottish play” hit select theaters this past December.
Lean and sparse, the film presents a primal and potent interpretation of Macbeth through an exaggeration of the naturalistic setting. Earth is represented by the moors, majestic in their barren windswept beauty yet pocked with mounds of corpses, as well as with the mud the soldiers streak their faces with as they pray before battle. Fire gorges itself on the swaddled remains of Macbeth’s infant son. It envelops the screen in its scorching embrace as armies face off in a haze of fog and faith. Kurzel incorporates water, as dangerous as any blaze, as a gray mist that the craggy hills wear like capes of mourning. The night Macbeth’s soul begins to curdle, a torrential rainstorm ensues.
The movie orbits in a tight circle around Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the titular character and his wife. They imbue the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with nuance, raw charismatic power, and a cold severity to match the Scottish landscape. In their (blood-soaked) hands, the Bard’s play transforms into a heady, electrically-charged dance laced with danger, desperation, and desire. All else is secondary to their pas de deux, even as their deceitful relationship implodes around them.
Fassbender’s steely blue eyes deftly capture the soul of a man who has killed in cold blood but mourns deeply. Bright and steady when he fights to protect King Duncan, they become flat and glazed as he desperately tries to protect his throne from enemies, real and imagined. The man who carefully covered the eyes of his fallen son with stones is gone, replaced by a man who coolly orders the murder of his usurper’s wife and children.
Cotillard delivers a brittle Lady Macbeth who sets fire to the latent ambition the witches spark in her husband. Yet as the throne becomes steeped in the blood of innocents, she snaps. Deviating from the text, the film places the couple in the context of their dead infant son, humanizing a character famed for her icy heart and iron will. The burning at the stake of Macduff’s family makes real the horror that has been unleashed in pursuit of the witches’ prophecy, and Lady Macbeth, clearly rattled, tries to wash the blood off the knife they used to kill King Duncan. Her suicide marks the death knell for Macbeth’s reign. Without her, he is lost and drained, even struggling to carry her limp body off the bed.
As the lead actors embed the limited dialogue with a host of finely tuned emotions, the cinematography presents a complementary picture to intensify their visceral effect. The bleak scenery is another character itself, one given corporal substance in the form of four (as opposed to the traditional three) witches—three grown women dressed in somber black, accompanied by a wordless little girl. They appear at the fringes of the battlefield like a twisted mirage, delivering the prophecy with granite stoicism before disappearing into the mist again.
The color palette of muted blues, grays, and greens is splashed against the bright crimson of the murdered king, and the sunset blaze of battle reinforces the dense melancholia that hangs over the events of the movie. In this earthy palette, the bright white finery of the couple’s coronation robes strikes an especially discordant note; Macbeth and his queen are liars and imposters in this great power struggle. And above it all floats the eerie and plaintive score: The thrumming of the war drums lurking ominously behind a keening bagpipe in a dreamy yet unsettling balance.
Blunt and hypnotic, Kurzel’s Macbeth delivers a one-two punch to the solar plexus. Both riveting and revolting, the film grips until the very end when things (literally) go up in flames. All hail Macbeth.