We first meet Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) at their child’s funeral, a pagan affair attended at a distance by the witches. The funeral explains Lady Macbeth’s later comments about breast milk and sets the tone of the film, for the couple’s childlessness is constantly underlined as we watch Banquo (Paddy Considine) and Macduff (Sean Harris) lovingly care for their offspring, Banquo almost never without his son.
Duncan (David Thewlis) is constantly attended by his two sons and when Macbeth usurps him, he realises that his reign means nothing if there is no heir. Macbeth brilliantly makes this point clear by pointing a dagger at his wife’s stomach, as if shifting the blame to her.
Kurzel excels in the battle scenes at the start and climax of the film. Macbeth’s make-up is reminiscent of Charlize Theron’s in Mad Max and there are hints of the Gladiator opening battle here. The sounds are visceral and the tones dark and brooding, with just a glimpse of red – a portent of the hell that Macbeth is creating for himself and which comes to dazzling fruition in the final scene: with the woods burning, the heat is palpable as Macbeth fights not just his enemies but his inner demons. These are epic moments handled beautifully.
Kurzel has made other major changes that do not work as well. The witches are accompanied by a child and a baby, thus stripping them of the magical quality of three, and much of their dialogue has been cut. Another stranger choice is for Malcolm to discover Macbeth with the bloody dagger in his hand as he sits beside the dead king. Also gone is the drunken porter who offers some comic relief after Duncan’s murder but who also refers to being the gatekeeper to hell. This would have fitted perfectly in Kurzel’s infernal kingdom and would add some dramatic cadence. As it is, the film is too monotonous, as it segues from one grim scene to the next.
Likewise some of Fassbender’s speeches lack a variety of tone, however his descent from faithful thane to a mentally unravelling king is striking and unnerving. Like the characters they portray, Fassbender’s lady is his equal and often outperforms him, Cotillard’s final scene particularly masterful. Both actors say so much even without dialogue, conveying complex emotions with a gaze or a tear.
Yet both leads are let down by the speed at which Kurzel has chosen to hasten their moral descent. There are some erratic Scottish accents among the main characters, but there is nothing erratic about their performances, Considine and Harris in particularly good form.
This is a fine film with a strong cast, yet it needs to show more of Macbeth’s struggle between his honour and desire for power. That said, Kurzel has created a visually-striking hell that is all of Macbeth’s own making.