As the shortest, sharpest and most stormily violent of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Macbeth” may be the most readily cinematic: The swirling mists of the Highlands, tough to fabricate in a theater, practically rise off the printed page. So it’s odd that, while “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” get dusted off at least once a generation by filmmakers, the Scottish Play hasn’t enjoyed significant bigscreen treatment since Roman Polanski’s admirable if tortured 1971 version. The wait for another may be even longer after Justin Kurzel’s scarcely improvable new adaptation: Fearsomely visceral and impeccably performed, it’s a brisk, bracing update, even as it remains exquisitely in period. Though the Bard’s words are handled with care by an ideal ensemble, fronted by Michael Fassbender and a boldly cast Marion Cotillard, it’s the Australian helmer’s fervid sensory storytelling that makes this a Shakespeare pic for the ages — albeit one surely too savage for the classroom.
No viewer familiar with Kurzel’s blistering 2011 debut, “The Snowtown Murders” — an unflinching true-crime drama that doubled as a rich essay on destructive masculine insecurities — should be too surprised that he’s chosen to enter the mainstream by reviving one of the English language’s most unforgiving studies in malignant male ego. Meanwhile, any fears that the director’s poetically severe style might be mollified by the tony demands of traditionally rooted prestige cinema are allayed by the opening reel. As a stark, stonily beautiful shot of an infant’s funeral segues into a combat sequence of bruising, heightened viciousness, it becomes clear that Kurzel, as well as screenwriters Todd Louiso, Michael Lesslie and Jacob Koskoff, have not taken a timid approach to their source material — either at a stylistic or interpretive level.
What is perhaps most striking about this introduction — the incantations of the Weird Sisters that begin the play have been relocated — is how wordless it is. Adam Arkapaw’s camera probes the anguished geography of human faces as they ritualistically prepare for battle or burial: Macbeth himself is first seen as a steaming, heaving, near-alien warrior, his human countenance given up to smeary, demonic war paint.
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A carnal battle cry finally breaks the silence; the armies of Macbeth and the traitorous Macdonwald charge and collide in silvery slow-motion, while composer Jed Kurzel (the director’s brother) amplifies the tribal percussion to nerve-fraying extremes. (As in “Snowtown,” the sound design is set at a needlingly low, industrial hum throughout.) It’s a technique seemingly made redundant by Zack Snyder’s “300” and its legion of imitators, yet Kurzel plays it more as brutal shadow theater, connoting the dehumanizing effects of mass slaughter without disregarding the collective cost of death. In visualizing trauma usually left offstage, Kurzel builds vital psychological context for the future King of Scotland’s bloody path to glory and dishonor.
What is seen, and by whom, emerges as the key consideration of Louiso, Lesslie and Koskoff’s respectfully inventive overhaul of the play. (Louiso, director of the U.S. indies “Love Liza” and “Hello I Must Be Going,” is hardly an expected name for this assignment, though he and his co-scribes exhibit a keen collective ear for the human nub of Shakespeare’s more expansive verse.) Crucial incidents are here given witnesses that shift the narrative tension, not to mention the balance of moral accountability, in provocative, constructively questionable ways. Young heir to the throne Malcolm (a fine, full-hearted Jack Reynor) catches Macbeth crimson-handed after the murder of King Duncan (David Thewlis), before fleeing in a youthful failure of nerve. Later, in an equivalent, particularly inspired adjustment, Lady Macbeth is made a witness to the public killing of Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her children; this callous wasting of a family makes a cruel mockery of her failure to create one.
The absence of Macbeth’s own heir, obliquely alluded to in Shakespeare’s text, is here made a more explicit point of anxiety for the couple — beginning with the lifeless child of that chill-inducing opening frame. Their joint power lust is made to seem a grievously unhappy displacement therapy for loss; in a play that already doesn’t want for uncanny visitations, quiet visions of her offspring return to our hero’s hand-scrubbing Queen at her most disoriented and guilt-ridden.
A plum role for any actress, Lady Macbeth proves an exhilaratingly testing one for Cotillard, whose gifts as both a technician and an emotional conduit apparently know no linguistic barrier. Streaked with unearthly blue eye shadow — Jenny Shircore’s daring makeup designs are a constant marvel — and working in a cultivated Anglo-Continental accent that positions the character even more pointedly as a stranger in her own court, Cotillard electrically conveys misdirected sexual magnetism, but also a poignantly defeated sense of decency. It’s a performance that contains both the woman’s abandoned self and her worst-case incarnation, often in the space of a single scene. Her deathless sleepwalking scene, staged in minimalist fashion under a gauze of snowflakes in a bare chapel, is played with tender, desolate exhaustion; it deserves to be viewed as near-definitive.
If Fassbender is more obviously cast than his leading lady, that’s not to say his performance is any less considered or intensely textured. There’s nary a hint in his interpretation of a man once “full of the milk of human kindness,” but his nervous unraveling does reveal Macbeth as a gauche, dependent soul, elevated by self-assigned male privilege. Fassbender may be a grand, seething physical presence, but his vocal delivery is immaculate: As befits a text judiciously edited to evoke a certain tartan terseness, the actor brings an inflamed, animalistic bark even to his most mellifluous monologues.
Kurzel likewise opts for high-impact spareness in the film’s visual and sonic design. He’s not afraid of broad symbolism: There may be one austere cross too many in the image system here, but this “Macbeth” does bear a substantial sense of spiritual consequence. Many filmmakers wouldn’t be able to pull off the blood-red filter that gradually saturates the screen in its final act, but Kurzel brings the proceedings to a pitch of disorder that makes this extreme stylistic leap seem intuitively inevitable: It’s as if the camera pre-emptively descends into the galleys of hell with its doomed subject.
Shooting on location in thorniest rural Scotland and England, Arkapaw’s work here (supplemented with additional lensing by Rob Hardy) is remarkable, exposing all the most hostile facets of the region’s beauty: Its dominant, sickly tones of gorse yellow and hurricane gray are permitted into the interiors of Fiona Crombie’s soaring yet rough-hewn production design. Costumes by Jacqueline Durran, an established master of fusing period authenticity with modern sculptural influence, are breathtaking: The coarse, hessian finish of 11th-century palace finery and battle gear alike are consistently offset by delicately suggestive detailing. Nothing is more effective in this regard than Macbeth’s own chunky crown — which, viewed close, resembles either a jagged chain of headstones or an oversized set of extracted baby teeth. In Kurzel’s thrillingly elemental new adaptation, death is a most literal burden to bear.