‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ – that’s a great early line from the bard which was etched its way into the cultural vernacular, and never has the mood of dire apprehension, inescapable fate and grim oppressive doom been articulated in movie culture more than with this latest screen incarnation of the so-called ‘Scottish play‘. Director Justin Kurzel – he who assaulted us with the Australian psycho drama Snowtown a few years back – follows in the imposing footsteps of no less than Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski in terms of taking on one of Shakespeare’s higher profile plays, and judging by this sophomore effort he is emerging as a master of atmosphere and evocative dread. As a reluctant product of the UK’s comprehensive education system I inevitably have a passing knowledge of my countryman’s literate achievements, as you are guaranteed to have studied some of his plays by the time you exit stage left and either continue your studies or begin a hesitant career in your late teens. Alongside The Winters Tale and A Comedy of Errors I have studied Macbeth, and I actually found it pretty amazing given the swordfights and medieval Machiavellian manoeuvring, which wasn’t at all bad for an academic activity populated with boring old people from olden times speaking in a really stupid and weird way. Macbeth concerned itself with the power dynamics, rituals and the deceitful posturing of noble people and their consorts long before the scheming Game Of Thrones, as a Tolkien fanatic a lot of this medieval fantasy type stuff was already in my wheelhouse, plus we got to see some tits by watching the Polanski version on VHS – result. For the uninitiated the we open in the 12th century Scottish hinterlands, where the upstart yet ruthlessly efficient general Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) defeats the combined forces of Norway and Ireland in the name of his clans ruler King Duncan (David Thewlis). With the Kings son newly enshrined as the heir to the throne Macbeth’s wife (Marion Cottillard) whispers of treachery and deceit, echoing a spectral prophecy from a trio of sorceress who prologue the tale of Macbeth’s righteous ascension. Aggravated at his dismissal Macbeth nurses a grievous blood-lust, a thirst for power which is stoked by his malicious wife, an augury inevitably cloaked in violent tragedy. Rounding out the impressive cast are the likes of Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as MacDuff, and Elizabeth Debicki as his wife, Lady MacDuff.
If you’ve seen Kurzel’s Snowtown then you’ll know that he is adept in invoking an atmosphere of choking apprehension, where the threat of brutal violence lurks around every corner, no more so than in this brooding, malevolent take on one of the bards great tragedies. This translation churns with elemental forces ingrained deep in the blood soaked earth, erupting in orgiastic reveries of power, of lust, and of madness, chittering and clawing like the hyperborean winds howling through the highlands. Kurzel opens up the play from its theatrical origins by framing the drama against some epic visual tapestries, the drama twisting and turning beneath a corpse grey bruised sky, with sulphurous mists masking the principals as spectral apparitions from a mythic, long dormant age. Black and red are the primary colours, with interiors shrouded in mysterious lurking shadows, or entire battle sequences submerged in crimson infernos, an impressive and impressionistic take on the material which is reminiscent of Winding-Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
The story revolves around the titular villain and his manipulative, malodorous wife, played with sultry, wraith-eyed intensity by Cotillard, a porcelain succubae who spins a web of deceit and grief in order to usurp the kingdom. Indeed it’s the concept of grief as a propelling, poisonous force where the film departs from the play, as Kurzel and his three scriptwriters have added the concept of a dead child as Macbeth and his wives machinery of mania, opening the film with his funeral and the couples desperate, paralysing grieving. Fassbender is fantastic as always, a thoroughly repellent figure wracked with an internal intensity, while his delivery of the great soliloquy ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ seems worthy of those legends who have seized the mantle over past screen translations. One moment where he hears some terrible news is just a fantastic screen moment (I guess after 400 years we still need to avoid plot spoilers eh?), as a tsunami of emotions course across his face before he sets his courage to the sticking post, and charges out to face his dire destiny.
Complementing the atmosphere is a lyrical score by Jed Kurzel whom one assumes is related to the director somehow, taking the period and location specifics to erect a portentous cathedral of cataclysm, without resorting to comedic bagpipes or simple ethnic pounding war-drums. This is high praise coming from me but I was also put in the mind of Apocalypse Now, where the lunacy and madness of the tale seems to saturate through the compositional elements on-screen, performance, imagery and sound draping the tragedy with a nightmarish hue, with some brutal moments which earn the films corpse strewn certificate. This was a good dry run for the LFF which begins in earnest on Wednesday, so seeing two films in one day (I also caught The Martian which is Ridders best movie in fifteen years) gives me some practice writing deadlines before the chaos commences in just a few days. Of the numerous Shakespeare film adaptions this is top-tier territory, a smoke encrusted soliloquy on power and malice which malingers throughout the ages;