AFI FEST Review: Macbeth

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It’s quite possible that no individual in the history of mankind has had as profound an influence on storytelling as William Shakespeare. The fact that his name is instantly recognizable centuries after his death speaks to the legacy he left behind. Iterations upon adaptations upon interpretations of his stories have been told and retold, and while some are superior to others, the core narratives remain unimpeachable. Among his tragedies, Macbeth is among the most haunting yet morose. It’s also one of the Bard’s shortest plays, making it a prime candidate for several cinematic adaptations. This latest take comes from Justin Kurzel, whose staging could be improved, but certainly capitalizes on a poetic atmosphere and its ravishing and ragged lead performances.

War is coming to a close. The King Duncan of Scotland (David Thewlis) has just defeated the armies of Norway and Ireland thanks to the valiant efforts of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), Thane of Glamis. Macbeth is a proud, resolute warrior, yet he is not above the temptations of power. He is greeted by a vision from three witches, who show him and his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) prophecies of his ascendancy to the throne. Banquo is also shown a prophecy that he will father a lineage of kings, yet not take the throne himself. With this vision in mind, Macbeth returns home and tells his wife (Marion Cotillard), and she begins to put nefarious plans in motion. When Duncan announces that his own son Malcolm (Jack Reynor) is next in line for the crown, Macbeth realizes that now is the time to strike. Thus begins a bloody saga in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will physically rise to power, yet psychologically crumble.

Performances are where Macbeth begins and ends, so it comes as no surprise that the film’s strongest asset is its dastardly married couple. Michael Fassbender turns in one of his most robust performances, ably tackling the title role with the man’s initial uncertainty and arcing finally to blinding bloodlust. Marion Cotillard matches him scene for scene, with equally crazed ambitions and schemes and on occasion displaying even more surface stability than her husband. One particular scene halfway through the film is the best showcase between the two, as Macbeth descends further and further into paranoia and Lady Macbeth slowly realizes what she hath wrought.

A primary reason for why Shakespeare’s works have seen so many interpretations is because of his minimal stage instructions. Aside from entrances and exits, the plays of the Bard provide a wealth of freedom for those visualizing them. If nothing else, director Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is highly visual, with immaculately composed frames and heavily saturated colors. If there’s one downside to the gorgeous imagery, it feels as if the staging suffers as a result. The actors are often confined to their frames, rather than the camerawork subserving the blocking. Nevertheless, atmosphere reigns in Macbeth, and each scene carries its own visual aura that contributes to the dour, apocalyptic mood. A few interesting editing patterns pop up as well when Macbeth finds himself enchanted by visions, alternating to slow motion that feels dutifully poetic. The writers are also not afraid to take a few liberties with the material, adding both a wordless prologue and epilogue which surprisingly inform where the story came from and where it is headed. At the end of the day, Shakespeare’s infamous Scottish tragedy is devastating enough on its own, but this cinematic vision may have the most fire and brimstone of them all.

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~ by romancinema on November 7, 2015.

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