Director Justin Kurzel is strangely noteworthy as a director not for what he has directed previously (which is itself nothing of note), but for what his next project is slated to be: the film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed. To precede that film with an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays seems more than a little bizarre, especially considering that Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are performing in both films. The resulting interpretation of Macbeth is simultaneously artistically boisterous and tragically pointless, a demonstration that Kurzel can portray historical violence in compelling and visually interesting ways that places the actual Shakespearean text in the back seat.
Kurzel and his fellow screenwriters take some liberties with the original play, most notably in that the battle that takes places in the moments immediately preceding the events of the play is shown in its full bloody glory with Macbeth (Fassbender) at the front and center. This battle is, as is most of the rest of the film, visually stunning, as cinematographer Adam Arkapaw captures some of the most beautifully composed shots of the year. However, this has the unfortunate effect of demonstrating Macbeth as a violent tyrant right from the get-go, so that his descent into madness feels more like a formality than a truly tragic evolution of his once uncorrupted character.
Both Fassbender and Cotillard do fantastic work as the Macbeths, particularly in individual scenes where they are given the full breadth of the original text to work with. Fassbender’s decent into madness is assisted by some clever manipulation of time through editing and Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is at once daringly manipulative of her husband and yet dumbstruck by the monster her goading has supposedly created. Neither transformation is really given the amount of screen time necessary to feel entirely convincing, though, as the film tends to rush through the slower, more talkative parts of the play as mere formality in order to get to the more violent and emotionally tortured material.
And that is ultimately why this isn’t in the upper echelon of Shakespearean adaptations; Kurzel has placed all priority on style rather than on substance. As gorgeous as the cinematography is, many of the scenes designed so show off these shots drag on for way too long through an abuse of slow motion that would make even Zack Snyder flinch. Furthermore, the score of this film is an omnipresent somber dirge, mixed much too loudly so as to be distracting rather than mood-setting. Some stylized choices work, such as the blood red filter on the climactic battle scene or the near-wordless subplot about Banquo’s son losing everything at Macbeth’s hand, but these inspired moments feel muted by the constant heavy-handed reminders that this is art cinema. And that just makes the production feel like a disingenous self-marketing exercise for Justin Kurzel in order to prove he can handle a large-scale production like Assassin's Creed.
On the whole, I’m willing to give this movie a pass because, at its core, it’s still Macbeth and is still entertaining based on the strength of the source material and the great talent performing it. However, I hope that some producer influence can reign in some of Justin Kurzel’s arthouse tendencies while making Assassin's Creed, because his lack of subtlety becomes quite tiresome by the end of two hours.