Not Our Mother But Our Grave

Justin Kurzel made his reputation with The Snowtown Murders, a shocking and eerie true-crime film from 2011.  Eschewing the usual gore and horror of most serial killer flicks, Snowtown focused on the plight of an abandoned community, whose poverty, isolation, and abandonment by legitimate authority made it easy prey for a charismatic and commanding killer who could twist his actions into the guise of protecting it.  Kurzel paid special attention to the way the lost world of Snowtown affected its children, the ones most likely to be corrupted and traumatized by such evil.

This theme is never far away from Kurzel’s flawed but spectacular new adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.  The director turns his attention away from the dark psychology of ambition and guilt that characterizes the play and instead makes it a breathtaking war film:  Fassbender’s Macbeth is a man traumatized by his own actions during the Scottish civil war, and Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is less the viper in his breast than a lost creature herself, equally shattered by the death of their children.  Again, the young suffer the most, from the unnamed child of the couple who is set ablaze on a funeral pyre in the movie’s opening moments to the ghostly presence of Macbeth’s own son, lost in a brutal battle he was in no way equipped to fight.  The death of Macduff’s son, often elided in modern interpretations, is foregrounded here to drive home the idea that war leaves behind no innocents.

It’s an approach that gains an interesting perspective, but loses almost as much, with the end result being a visually stunning film that has a muddled and diverted meaning.  It’s not really a question of style over substance, because the substance is there, and Kurzel should no more be faulted for imposing his own view on the text that any one of thousands of other artists that have used William Shakespeare’s work as a canvas on which to pain their own ideas.  It’s that the chosen vehicle doesn’t really take the ideas where they need to go.  For one thing, the dialogue is stripped down to a bare minimum; if one doesn’t already know the plot of Macbeth intimately, the events of the story can seem muddy, particularly as it’s delivered in thick burrs that have various degrees of authenticity but lie just south of Orson Welles’ brilliant 1948 version of the Scottish play in terms of comprehensibility.  Kurzel clearly wants to let what’s on screen speak for itself, but if that’s the case, why pick Shakespeare, whose greatness is an always has been in his glorious way with words?

Similarly, the acting is generally superior (particularly in support, with Sean Harris as Macduff and David Thewlis as Duncan turning in tremendous performances), but often blunted by the presentation.  It’s not that Fassbender and Cotillard aren’t excellent; they are.  It’s just that they’re given relatively little to do by the excision of so much of the dialogue.  Again, it’s not the execution, it’s the conception:  if you’re not going to require them to say  — and if, when they do, they often seem like they’re talking past each other — then why get such high-caliber actors to do the job?  Macbeth’s traumas run deep, and coax some heavy lifting out of Fassbender; and Lady Macbeth alternates between emotions that are, if hard to place, certainly deeply felt; but they never quite seem to connect, because the threads of those connections — the dialogue between them, and the psychology it illuminates — have been ripped out.

But to characterize it as without virtue would be a huge mistake.  There’s a lot going on here, and much of it demands our attention.  There is a lot of genuine emotional power on display in Kurzel’s Macbeth, and it only goes so far to complain about the way it fits a bit awkwardly into the overall narrative.  While it suffers overall from shedding so much of Shakespeare’s text, he makes some choices that pay off well; in many versions of the play, the Three Witches are overly sexualized, made too formidable, or set too far outside the action.  Here, Wurzel makes them an intrinsic part of the story, as harrowed by the events of the war as any of the other characters, and the choice to have four witches instead of three — with the one Macbeth interacts with the most a young girl, driving home the overarching theme of war’s impact on children — pays off in spades.  There’s something extremely compelling about the choice to set almost all of the action outdoors, with very few interior scenes; emphasizing the “blasted heath” lends the proceedings a savage beauty, especially given that it’s filmed (gorgeously, by DP Adam Arkapaw) in some of Scotland’s most stunning vistas.

Most of all, Macbeth is visually phenomenal.  From the very first scene of the child’s funeral pyre to the final credit sequence, with the titles saturated through a blood-red filter, the tragedy of Macbeth and the way he turns the sweep of Scotland from his mother to his grave looks spectacular, and Kurzel and his crew have made a movie where every frame is packed with treats.  It’s not too flashy or busy, though; it’s simply expertly composed, by a man who has great confidence in his eye.  The few times it skirts on the edge of excess, particularly in some early slow-motion battle scenes, it stops itself just before going too far overboard; it’s this sense of subtlety and restraint that makes Kurzel the kind of visionary director that the far inferior Zack Snyder is credited by salesmen and gullible critics of being.  Kurzel is the real deal, and Macbeth is a film by a director fully in command of his visual vocabulary; it’s just that the storytelling can’t keep up.

As an original work, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is an amazing step forward and, one hopes, a signal of the arrival of a director of incredible talent and potential (though the fact that his next project is Assassin’s Creed, a video game adaptation, is worrisome).  It is as an adaptation of Shakespeare that it falls the furthest, which, since that’s what it is, is a pretty noticeable flaw.

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