‘Macbeth’: Cannes Review

No pain, no thane: A bold, inventive and violent adaptation with two award-worthy lead performances

Michael Fassbender stars as the title character in Justin Kurzel's verion of Shakespeare's Scotland-set play, opposite Marion Cotillard as his ambitious wife.

Show people may superstitiously refuse to call Macbeth anything other than "the Scottish play," but the producers of this latest film version have lucked out by assembling cast and crew elements that make for an intensely compelling work. Although tradition is upheld with a Dark Ages-Early Christian period setting, actually shot in Scotland for once (unlike the 1971 Roman Polanski version), in most other respects Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) filters Shakespeare's tragic story of murderous ambition through a resolutely modern sensibility. Comparisons with Game of Thrones will be inevitable, and not always flatteringly intended, but they won't be wide off the mark.

With its foregrounded class conflict, horror-movie spookiness and — most importantly — use of brutal violence, it's an adaptation that has a much better chance than most Bard-based works of crossing-over to audiences beyond the arthouses. The play's evergreen popularity in high-school syllabi should help that along, as will the growing box-office draw of Michael Fassbender, sexy, charismatic and later poignant in the title role, opposite a surprisingly cast but completely persuasive Marion Cotillard as his manipulative wife.

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The one constituency that probably won't look especially kindly on this will be stringent Shakespeare purists, who might start with scoffing at why three people (Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie) are credited for the screenplay before Shakespeare's name even gets a mention. (Presumably, they collaborated on trimming down the dialogue and plotting several wordless scenes not in the original.) Viewers accustomed to theatrical versions of Shakespeare may also be considerably less impressed. A well-trained stage actor should be able to find a way to make nearly every word, however archaic, sound comprehensible as well as audible. Although the film's press notes talk up how much the whole cast worked with coach Neil Swain to refine their delivery, there's an awful lot of mumbling going on here, and a sense that while the emotion might be discernible in the performer's face, it's like some kind of free-floating entity not tethered to what's coming out of his or her mouth. At times, some might as well be reciting names from the phone book instead of the free verse.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Kurzel's debut feature, fact-based serial killer drama Snowtown, leaned so heavily on low-key performances and dialed-up, cuss-word rich speech, it achieved quasi-documentary levels of naturalism. Macbeth's cast sticks to a very similar register here, pitching lines laconically, in almost conversational fashion. The style is established from the off, after a touching opener that observes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth laying to rest their dead child, with the meeting of the three witches. They are a Scots-accented, generation-spanning trio who gather in the mist to discuss Macbeth's fate with flat, cackle-free voices, like housewives sharing a recipe for Dundee cake. Dialogue aside, they only way you might know they're witches is because they have weird markings between their eyebrows, like vestigial gills or scars left over after the removal of a third eye.

The whole opening act is punchy as hell, as Kurzel and crack editor Chris Dickens (Slumdog Millionaire, Shaun of the Dead) deftly weave together contracted versions of key scenes and invented sequences that usefully fill out the story — like a battle that sees Macbeth, his right-hand man Banquo (Paddy Considine) and their men defeat invading Norsemen and the traitor Macdonwald, all done with a mix of slo-mo and drop-frame speed that emphasizes the carnage and chaos of medieval warfare. A young man, who might have been a son or just a squire for the soon-to-be-elevated Thane of Glamis, lies butchered on the battlefield — a ghost, blackened and blood-smeared. But like all the other supernatural elements, he is just a matter of fact part of this world, who holds out the dagger to Macbeth for the "is this a dagger I see before me?" speech just before the murder of King Duncan (David Thewlis, whom you can tell is meant to be the king because — to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail — he "hasn't got shit all over him").

Mostly, Kurzel and the screenwriters' add ins are felicitous inventions like the above, but some are perhaps a little too on the nose, like having Macbeth and Lady Macbeth literally humping on a tabletop for the "screw your courage to the sticking point" speech, though it can't be denied that the two actors have rapturous, swooning chemistry together.

Otherwise, a lot of the extra-textual additions work to flesh out Lady Macbeth's character and make her less than a stock scheming bitch and more comprehensible as a woman driven by frustration, grief and, yes, greed. Cotillard's French accent effectively underscores her otherness, suggesting that she might be the equivalent, with her Medusa braids and outre, Adam Ant-style smear of blue eyeshadow, of a medieval mail-order bride who'd understandably like a better life than the hardscrabble of survival in a shabby tent watching her children die. It's a smart move, making her a witness to the death of Lady Macduff, thus precipitating her guilt-fueled breakdown later. Cotillard nails the character's final, "out damn spot" monologue with a display of cracked sanity and despair that will surely reap this already much admired actress further awards recognition.

Fassbender's turn may be only fractionally less impressive because the audience knows that English is already his first language, even if famously he's also fluent in German, his father-tongue. His Scottish accent is a bit wobbly in places, but that's nitpicking when you consider how much else he brings to the role — swagger, a credible military-man's mien and layers of self-doubt that rupture the cocky, tyrannical surface by degrees once he's grabbed the crown. But there's also a sneering streak of cruelty that rubs out any nobility to his plight; he's almost literally a man possessed by a demonic ambition, a point underscored by a slyly hilarious steal from Paranormal Activity at one point.

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Other film references, for instance to Throne of Blood in the red-filtered climactic showdown with Macduff (Sean Harris) are possibly a bit too knowing, but otherwise Kurzel's visceral approach consistently pays dividends. Kurzel's DP from Snowtown, Adam Arkapaw (who also shot Animal Kingdom, a gangland tale of another sort), exploits the inherent pitilessness of high-definition to enhance the immediacy, while the collaboration between production designer Fiona Crombie and Brit costume designer Jacqueline Durran produces some breathtaking visual textures. Although the outdoor locations are all Scotland, exploiting the eerie treeless landscapes for their full desolate potential, Crombie makes inspired use of Ely Cathedral and its soaring vaults and massive spaces for Macbeth's royal abode.

Production companies: A Studiocanal, Film4 presentation of a Film4 in association with DMC Film, Anton Capital Entertainment, Creative Scotland of a See-Saw Films production
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Hayman, Maurice Roeves, Ross Anderson, James Harkness
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenwriters:Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Laura Hastings-Smith
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Olivier Courson, Danny Perkins, Jenny Borgars, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Editor: Chris Dickens
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Casting: Jina Jay
Make-up and hair designer: Jenny Shircore
Sales: Studiocanal

No rating, 113 minutes