Since Shakespeare wrote for the stage and not the silver screen, he probably never imagined his Macbeth as director Justin Kurzel does in his new adaptation of the film that’s now playing locally at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights, the Capitol Theatre and Atlas Great Lakes Cinemas in Mentor. Kurzel turns the source material into something quite visceral — think Mad Max with characters speaking in verse.
Written by Jacob Koscoff, who draws heavily from the play, Kurzel’s Macbeth features so many scenes of extreme violence, it becomes a rather difficult film to sit through. In fact, at the screening we attended, several patrons exited the theater before the movie ended.
Naturally enough, the film begins in the middle of a fierce battle. Decked out in war paint, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) leads the troops in support of King Duncan (David Thewlis). A ruthless fighter, he defeats the enemy, but he also sustains heavy losses, and the battle scenes here pack a real intensity. We see bodies piled upon bodies. We see young boys ruthlessly slaughtered. We see the blood and sweat. Covered so extensively in filth that they often look like they just emerged from the depths of the earth, the men embody the ugliness of war, and many of the gruesome scenes of killing take place in slow motion so we can better see the physicality of it all.
Though Duncan names MacBeth to be his heir on account of his heroism, that’s not enough for the guy. Worried about a prophecy that suggests he’ll lose the throne, he and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) conspire to kill Duncan in his sleep and place blame upon his guards. In the wake of the king’s execution, Macbeth literally has blood on his hands from the gruesome murder. But he quickly cleans himself up to avoid suspicion. He then assumes the throne as King of Scotland. But all is not well. Still troubled by the prophecy that questions his reign, Macbeth sends his flunkies out to kill rival Banquo (Paddy Considine) and his son, whom he sees as potential threats. Banquo meets a grisly end, but his son escapes into the woods.
With the knowledge that Banuo’s son is still at large, Macbeth begins to lose his mind — Fassbender really shines in these scenes as he perfectly captures the man’s physical and mental anguish. But his fine performance doesn't make the film any less punishing. Shakespeare aficionados will appreciate the fact that Kurzel and Co. stay true to the original source material. Others will likely find this film too oppressive.