Scotland herself is the main character in this blood-soaked reimagining of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. So enamoured is director Justin Kurzel of his Highland landscape that it becomes his focal point: a gaping maw of brutal heights and contours before the poor players. This is a cold pagan place, where the respite from war and rain is never very long.
From the opening scene– a child’s funeral –we discover a country of hope murdered in its infancy. Power is wielded by a clutch of men, whose in-fighting has led to continuous conflict for Scotland’s people. Michael Fassbender’s eponymous hero is gladiatorial: a fiercely rugged and committed Thane (of Glamis, Cawdor etc.) whose noble spirit turns sickly with untamed ambition. This is very much a Macbeth about men-at-war, a reading that Kurzel follows through effectively, albeit at the cost of some of the play’s best and strangest elements.
The ‘weird sisters’ are not so very weird at all. They appear on the fringes of the battlefield as wandering mothers, accompanied by their children and whispering prophecies that always sound closer to prayers than incantations. Indeed, the famous coven scene with its fabulous potion-brewing is sliced from the text; instead, Macbeth wanders through a field of ghostly soldiers, whose deaths haunt him throughout the film.
The substitution of the witch for the apparition is a crucial one. Shakespeare’s supernatural solicitings get short shrift here, and this is nowhere more evident than in the characterisation of Lady Macbeth. It ought to be one of the very best roles in the entire canon, and the ever-impressive Marion Cotillard does what she can within the confines of the direction. But this is a wraithlike portrait of a grieving mother, not a guilt-ridden murderess, for whom the ‘damned spot’ is an infant’s smallpox rather than a bloodstain. The raven himself is silent as Kurzel foolishly crops her stunning first soliloquy, a move symptomatic of the broader effacement women suffer in this film.
Visually, however, Macbeth is magnificent. The country’s storm-tormented glens and verges are a topology of the play’s bitter and hallucinatory psychology, forming an apt counterpoint to Macbeth’s frenzied decline. Fury builds through the slow-motion scenes of slaughter, and an attention to the rituals of war: the application of paint, and the assembling of weapons. In his soldierly interpretation, Fassbender is an outstanding Macbeth. His readings are underplayed and natural, yet full of ire beneath a hardened countenance. The final scenes of grief-stricken madness are particularly powerful, as he prepares to fight again with the ashes of a fiery Dunsinane blowing through the battlements.
As a war film, and a study of men and power, Kurzel’s adaptation is both well-acted and engrossing. But so much of the original play is framed by the plotting and prophesying of women, and the supernatural summons Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth whispers in her bedroom ought really to be cackled from the ramparts.