Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2015


...in the dunnest smoke of hell

Bold cinematic language bolsters 'Macbeth''s tragic ironies and psychological depth

The Weinstein Company
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenplay: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, Paddy Considine, Jack Reynor, Lynn Kennedy, David Thewlis and Elizabeth Debicki
Rated R / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Shakespeare's Macbeth never wastes any time. Unique in its ability to build and unravel simultaneously, the play is a marvel of narrative propulsion, its tragedy rapidly, anxiously unfolding as quickly as each seed is planted. The opening prophecy is not just a forecast of the story but the direct catalyst for it; once articulated, that prophecy unleashes a madness upon its characters that hurtles them, through agony and irony, toward an inevitable doom.

That this is the Bard's shortest tragedy is not incidental, and the relentless pace of its sequence of events - every action resulting in an almost immediate repercussion - is one of the things I love most about it. The newest big-screen iteration, from Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel - his follow-up to the outstanding, eerie true-crime thriller The Snowtown Murders - is a fascinating interpretation of that very characteristic. In a sense it doubles down on the urgent pace; his version - starring Michael Fassbender as the war hero-turned-Thane of Cawdor-turned-doomed king - is a two-hour fever dream, at times playing out as if everything is happening in a single moment, the blink of an eye. (Chris Dickens' editing is also instrumental here, especially in the way he integrates disparate moments, blending cause and effect, action and result - an effect that not only propels the momentum of the story but helps create the film's amorphous sense of time.)

The film inhabits such a specific state of mind, and so completely, that at times it tends to get tonally monotonous; yet there remains the powerful visceral feeling of a waking nightmare, from which neither the title character nor Lady Macbeth can escape. Time is fluid; one moment bleeds into the next, and it's here (and in the haunting mood of the film as a whole) that Jed Kurzel's score is so essential, as he makes distinct scenes feel emotionally dependent on one another. The persistent, discordant whinny of the violins sets things on edge, periodically evolving into a mournful cry when the strings straighten out. The score is blatantly reminiscent of fellow Aussie Nick Cave (The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Road) as well as Jonny Greenwood's work on There Will Be Blood.

The madness is the key - always is, with Macbeth - and Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw convey it brilliantly. An infernal red invades every battlefield as a dreamy fog rolls through it, enveloping Macbeth in a nebulous moral and psychological state; it sets in even as he's standing in the center of his greatest (and last) honest triumph, defeating Macdonald and his army of traitors. Of course it does, because the witches have already arrived in the near distance, observing passively in quiet judgment as the sublime carnage rages in front of them. There are four of them in this version - a young girl joining the three sisters - and their presence is that of instigative but otherwise neutral observers of a grand cosmic test that everyone seems to fail.

They catch Macbeth's eye quickly, and soon enough - once the battle is fought and won - they casually reveal their prophecies to him and Banquo (Paddy Considine) before walking away and disappearing back into the mist from which they seemingly emerged.

In his second feature, Kurzel shows a remarkable assuredness (as he did in his debut), and it's clear he views his material in cinematic terms rather than theatrical ones. He has an interesting way of blending screamingly modern techniques with more classical or familiar sensibilities. The muddy chaos of combat brutality intercut with balletic slow-motion. The raw cries of the battlefield abruptly, self-awarely quieted, the violence and shouting reduced to a low rumble. Naturalism interrupted by the surreal. The subdued colors of the sets and costumes punctured by expressionistic lighting.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say it's possible I'm a bit of an easy lay for this movie, as Macbeth has long been my favorite play, and the work of literature I've read most often. That, and there's nothing I appreciate more in a film - adaptations in particular - than one that can tell its story through its own eyes, reimagining, reinventing as it sees fit. But even taking my attachment to the material into consideration, this is, if nothing else, a very specific and very movie incarnation of an oft-told story.

While the film, for better or worse, doesn't really exploit the sly humor of the play, it still finds potent ways to explore its ideas of power, privilege and entitlement, which manifest in certain features of the actors' performances and in the way Kurzel stages and interprets key scenes. In Macbeth's behavior and Fassbender's performance, what emerges is the weight of a cosmic joke that he comes to intuit he's diving right into, with no escape, as if he sees the whole trajectory of his own tragedy and that he's almost powerless to stop it. Explicit focus is given to his weakness as a man, which grants added magnitude to every line in which he insists otherwise. ("I dare do all that may become a man / Who dares do more is none.")

The witches' prophecy instills in him a sense of entitlement, and we see him throughout the film trying to resolve that with the lurking unease telling him the other shoe is going to drop, somehow. The look on his face as Macduff (Sean Harris) makes his pivotal climactic revelation is one of his entitlement being perforated - and almost mercifully, at that.

For that matter, Macbeth does a lot with faces throughout. The enigmatic expression (placid? disappointed? curious?) worn by each of the witches, for example. Or the way the script - written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso - cuts down on the dialogue in various scenes, putting the onus on the actors to get across in a glance several stanzas' worth of emotional information. (The film doesn't overdo close-ups, but when it uses them, it uses them well.) Of course, that's made easier when you have the world's most cinematic face, Marion Cotillard, as your Lady Macbeth. She is, to no one's surprise, superb in the role, accentuating her contradictions, doubts and desperation in a way that makes her an entirely unique type of tragic figure. Her version of the character is at once as potent and ruthless as we have come to expect, and yet more fragile. (The film itself seems to want to frame Lady Macbeth somewhat more empathetically than we often see. Its opening shot is that of a dead child - her dead child - being laid to rest in the Scottish highlands.)

In fact, I would argue that one of the film's mistakes is not using Cotillard even more than it already does; she's so mesmerizing in the part that her absence is keenly felt when the movie goes too long keeping her off-screen or otherwise not giving her much to do. A co-lead role becomes a supporting one.

But that can't altogether take away from the interesting directions Kurzel takes us. Consider his approach to the play's view of power dynamics - for example the banquet scene, when the ghost of the just-murdered Banquo appears before Macbeth. Particularly in a movie setting, there are so many ways that you can stage this scene, with so many different results. Here, Kurzel casts his eye on the acquiescence to power itself. When Macbeth confronts one of the cutthroats he hired to kill Banquo, the entire conversation - and all its damning implications - echoes; at one point we cut to a wide shot that not only reveals how small and intimate the banquet hall is, but emphasizes the eerie silence of it, and everyone in it. As both the conversation with the assassin and Macbeth's fit of unintentionally confessional madness proceed, the attendants stare straight ahead, ears open, not saying a word. The reality is well-received; their consent is in their silence. A lie agreed upon.

One of the principle stylistic deviations of this interpretation - and, to some, the primary drawback - is in the way it uses the language itself. Gone are the rhythms we're used to hearing in Shakespeare, replaced by a rougher, less formal, more natural style of speech, its lulls and anguished pauses expressing every bit as much as the words themselves. It's an approach that I think works splendidly, despite coming at obvious expense. It specifically fits this vision of Macbeth, with its downplaying of traditional theatrical elements in favor of more raw cinematic expression. The poetry of the words remains, but the film finds equal power in its dreamlike visual evocation of madness and fate, its sound and fury that signifies everything.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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