The Cinematic Brilliance of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

Turn Hellhound, Turn

Justin Kurzel’s name as of late, has become famous for all the wrong reasons.   Director of the egregious failure Assassins Creed, his most recent production and most promising so far.  Kurzel’s gathering of Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender got me excited, I knew they could do great work together.  Sadly, a generous critic would deem five minutes at the most of this movie to be watchable, and every second of those is derivative because it is essentially based on the fighting concepts of Assassin’s Creed games.

So, this is not a conventional review.  You don’t necessarily have to watch this film.  Even I’ll admit that it contains some pretty hard to get through moments.  This is essentially, my contribution to the clearance of an excellent director’s name, and a recognition of one of the most profound works of art ever committed to film.

This movie sort of defies what Shakespeare plays have become.  Most adaptations, like their original performances contain a lot of overblown acting, and emphasis upon the words of the play.  This makes perfect sense, after all, a Shakespeare manuscript is only words, with a few minor stage directions here and there, and they were written to be performed in an overblown fashion since — in the days before PA systems and megascreens — the back of the audience still needed to see what was going on somehow.  Kurzel’s actors consummately overturn this trend by dissecting their lines, decreasing their poetry, but increasing their authenticity tenfold.  Macbeth says “come wind, come wrack”, but Fassbender says “Come wind, come…wrack” as if he is pausing to think about just what else he is inviting.

Shakespeare shouldn’t always be realistic, and some of his work is (unavoidably) downright fantastical; but for Macbeth, a play that is exceedingly tense, brutal, and emotional, Kurzel’s added verisimilitude is a perfect match.  The famous banquet scene, as compared to the version directed by Roman Polanski is a perfect example.

Polanski is a great director, but I think Kurzel’s approach is just a tad superior.  Do you notice how one version of “the Scottish play” is exceedingly un-scottish?  In Kurzel’s Macbeth, the Tyrant King wears no shining golden diadem, but a faded circlet instead.  Banquo’s appearance is more subtle as well, casually staring into Macbeth’s soul without everything halting, allowing Macbeth’s madness to be seen from the outside.

This iteration’s defining moment — the scene I’ve been ecstatically anticipating writing about — is doubtlessly the final confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff.  Unlike the films first hour or so, which will probably only capture the interest of devout Shakesperian aficionados, the story’s climax is visually subduing regardless of one’s enjoyment for iambic pentameter.

Macduff and company rally against the tyrant Macbeth, bringing trees from Birnham Wood to Dunsinanane hill, fulfilling part of the witches’ damning prophecy.  As the trees catch fire, the smoke, the fading light, and the orange glow of the flames mix, creating an apocalyptic backdrop for a clash of titans.  The two exchange biting words, and clash blades.  As the weapons connect, they produce a low thunking sound.  Far from the tinny steel clashing one expects.  They fight simply, but with such emotion, that the battle become fascinatingly engaging.

When Maccbeth realizes that Macduff can in fact, end his life, a stark realization creeps onto his face.  Fassbender again proves the elasticity of his emotional range.  His visage shifts from the anger of battle, to confusion, to defeat.  Macbeth fights no longer.  He moves towards Macduff, once one of his closest friends, and embraces him, even as Macduff, wounds him, mortally.

Overcome, Macbeth collapses to the ground.  Coming to grips again with his own mortality.  Macduff and his cohorts respectfully leave him there.  Several of my classmates, when I studioed this book in high school english lamented Kurzel’ omission of a severed head, which is included in practically every other Macbeth Media.  What I pick up from this is that Macduff has a lot of respect for a man who was like a brother to him.

With no lines, Fassbender kneels on the battlefield as the camera switches to a wide shot, showing us the futility of his existence.  The shot is beautiful.  The enormous frame contains only Macbeth, and a sword. The sword driven into the ground symbolizes his refusal to continue fighting.  The barely visible mountains make the perfect foreground, and the aforementioned orange color pallette is positively wondrous.  Fassbender’s Macbeth is left to reflect upon his actions, where it all went wrong.

When Assassin’s Creed was released, I heard it called, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, symbolizing nothing.”  I chuckled; Shakespeare jokes are always the best jokes, and what’s more, this diagnosis was undoubtedly true.  By that standard, Kurzel’s Macbeth is “a tale shown by a master, full of rage, and humanity, signifying everything a Shakespeare movie aught.”

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