Justin Kurzel certainly knows how to capture a sense of time and place. Snowtown, his grim suburban serial killer debut in 2011 brought to life the dilapidated restrictiveness of small town Australia. Now taking on the Bard, he really puts Scotland back in the Scottish play. Closing out the Palme d’Or contenders this year, his Macbeth is a pared down roar of a film, inventively staged, mean and a little monotonous. Stuck in one moodily aggressive register, it doesn’t pack quite the punch Michael Fassbender’s performance deserves.

Fassbender is Macbeth, minor warlord in a war torn country. This is 11th century Scotland and it looks and feels it. Rocky, windswept ground stretches as far as the eye can see, beaches stand in chilly isolation and forests loom up to swallow those that pass. Fighting for King Duncan (David Thewlis) as he battles to crush usurpers, Macbeth soon finds himself plunged down a well of raging insanity when a prophecy spurs him and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) to seize the throne and turn on old comrades lest another family form the new ruling dynasty.

Man of influence as he is, Macbeth lives no life of luxury. Only the King has a stone fortress and fancy quarters. Everyone else makes do in semi-permanent tented encampments. It’s no wonder he’s willing to take the dagger and promote himself. Jacob Koskoff and Todd Louiso’s screenplay moves swiftly through the key touch points in Shakespeare’s original text. It makes for a slightly off-kilter experience as an unhinged Macbeth and his scheming wife rise high and fall without joins in between. The original decision to turn traitor passes so quickly, Scotland’s first couple are soon knocking off rivals and plummeting into guilt-ridden purgatory before you can say the ghost at the feast.

Kurzel seems more interested in atmosphere than narrative, using this unbalanced approach to create a consistent mood of oppressive dread. Dark clouds loom from the start as he buries his child, and never depart. At best they’re briefly obscured by a wonderful finale that coats the screen orange from a background fire, Macbeth facing an avenging spirit of his own creation in the shape of Sean Harris’ Macduff through billowing smoke. Effective in small doses, it’s a note played too often, the film clinging to this one sensation until the end.

At least Fassbender’s on hand to take Macbeth to his judgement, turning on a dime as the screenplay drops him from formidable war leader to a crazed despot muttering about the scorpions in his mind. Whether running around his bedroom chamber, berating subordinates for failing to carry out murderous instructions, or spitting elegantly spiteful speeches, Fassbender seems in control of his character throughout. The rest of the cast provide strong support, particularly Paddy Considine’s Banquo, and Harris who brings memorable rage to his role. The disappointment is Cotillard. Shining whenever allowed, she’s too often relegated to the sidelines, her expressive eyes left under-utilised.

Kurzel’s take is certainly interesting, capturing the feel of the play with unerring accuracy. There are also a number of nice touches along the way, albeit with a surfeit of slow-motion. Pounding away on the same note for too long, this is not classic Macbeth, though Fassbender might just have given us a classic Macbeth. When the smoke clears at the end, one thing’s for certain – what with the dynastic despotism, it’s grim up north.

Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris
Runtime: 113 min
Country: UK, France, USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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