I suppose you couldn't ask Shakespeare for a play more serious than Macbeth. King Lear has a fool, Hamlet has plenty of jokes from the prince himself. Titus Andronicus has a macabre humour. And yet, director Justin Kurzel saw fit to edit out even the few tiny hints of levity from his 2015 film version of Macbeth. But he pares the story down even more than that for a finished product that's more narrowly focused and youthful. I imagine Kurzel would blush angrily if he found someone had sneaked "Double, double toil and trouble" back into a cut of his film. But it is beautifully shot when it's not relying on colour filters and features some very nice performances from Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Sean Harris.
I like Michael Fassbender usually when he has a strong director to keep him in check but in the case of Macbeth a bit of wild grandstanding is perhaps just what the doctor ordered. It's certainly appropriate in the banquet scene where Lady Macbeth nervously tries to explain away her husband's suddenly erratic behaviour. And Fassbender's grin when he tells her his mind is full of scorpions is perfect.
Some contrast might have been nice, though. The porter is gone, of course, with his broad antics. I feel like his absence is related to Kurzel's tendency to set up group shots like still photographs. Here's David Thewlis ably playing Duncan, waiting with a group of motionless advisers and soldiers.
There's the sense that if you're not a lord or lady or their kid, all you do in this film is stand around waiting like a chess piece. None of the soldiers in the background chat with each other, everything is about the elite. It reminded me of how Game of Thrones has a tendency to completely omit the lower class. I wondered if the film's use of colour filters is part of the same general short attention span that demands the total focus on the power players.
Even the witches--as I said, they're deprived of their famous line. Usually they're portrayed as cackling or grinning. Here they seem to be mournfully reciting their remaining lines, having sort of a hushed grief about them. Also, they appear to be Bajorans.
Kurzel doesn't seem like he'd be a Trekkie. Maybe that's meant to be an Eastern Orthodox crucifix between their eyes though that also wouldn't make any sense. Unless it's meant to reflect some kind of general suspicion felt towards Eastern Europe, I'm not sure where Kurzel would be getting that from in the play's original text.
Before seeing the film, I read that the main change made to the story was that it began with the death of Macbeth's child. The film seems to focus more on the deaths of children with this child's death being followed by the death in battle of a boy who seems to be Macbeth's son. For all that, I thought Macduff's beautifully written, heartbroken "all my pretty chickens" dialogue could've been handled with less testosterone as the scene feels like it's become more focused on Macduff's desire for revenge than his grief.
It does in some sense feel like "Shakespeare for 300 fans" in that the battle scenes have that continual shift between slow and normal motion. Added to the lack of humanity established in the soldiers, there's a lack of reality to the battle scenes. This works in the sense that we're trapped inside the madness of Lord and Lady Macbeth but, again, contrast would have been nice. The slow motion and still photograph posing gives the film the impression of a dream.
Like Orson Welles' version, the characters all speak with Scottish accents, despite the fact that all accents would've been quite different in the time when the play was written. But it does add to the establishment of location for the film. The gorgeous shots of misty heath and moor certainly don't hurt.
Welles' version also felt like a nightmare version of the play though a more lucid one. Kurzel has a tendency to overlap the sound from scenes with shots from others giving the film an oddly droning, sedate quality. It's almost more mildly worrying dream than nightmare.
I'd quibble with a few individual choices. In this version, Malcolm discovers Macbeth basically in the act of murdering Duncan and Macbeth makes no attempt to hide what he's done. This has the effect of making Malcolm seem like a bit of a coward. It made more sense for him to flee to England when he didn't know who the murderer was, now he's just running away.
I really liked the costumes and, as I've said, a lot of the landscape shots are simply lovely. When Macbeth becomes king he gets a castle though the home where Duncan makes his fateful visit to him is oddly shown to be just a group of tents and a little wooden church.
The famous "To-morrow and to-morrow" soliloquy is spoken by Macbeth directly to the corpse of Lady Macbeth as he holds her in his arms which makes a bigger difference to the lines than I might have anticipated. The way I'm used to hearing the lines, I felt like they were Macbeth reflecting on the loneliness and meaninglessness of his existence, a truth which he felt even before Lady Macbeth died. Here, Fassbender crooning to her body makes the lines feel like they're his impression of how she felt. He becomes slightly nobler as a result though the demonstrated capacity for empathy takes some of the nihilistic despair out of the lines.
All in all, not a bad film. Polanski's is still a better representation of the play, Welles' is a better extrapolation.