There is not any shortage of adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s plays have the distinction of having been adapted onto film from the earliest days of the silent era to the current modern cinematic age. There are far too many of these adaptations to name here, and spanning between the Western world to the Eastern world, and everywhere in between, Shakespeare’s plays have been turned into some fascinating films. As someone who adores The Bard’s work, I consider Macbeth to be the greatest piece of literature ever written, but I have yet to find a truly compelling film adaptation. There have been some very competent ones, such as Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation (which in itself is very good, but lacks the true essence of the original play), and some great films that borrow elements of the play and tells them in a contemporary setting. However, in 2015, we were blessed to receive an adaptation of Macbeth that is both reliable to the source material, and the brutal and transcendent adaptation of the play that the great piece of literature deserved.
Justin Kurzel is a director that had the talent, but not the fame, prior to directing Macbeth. He had directed Snowtown, a chilling film about one of the most infamous cases of murder in Australian history, and was one of many directors in the ensemble-directed film The Turning. However, it appears as if he finally had somewhat of a breakthrough, because his adaptation of Macbeth is probably the best adaptation of a Shakespearean play in many years, and stands as one of the very best in history. Kurzel clearly does not have any qualms with showing the brutal violence of the story, and while the violence that is implied in the play is very rarely ever perfectly portrayed on the stage, Kurzel knows that artistic license does exist, and instead of using the same tame, but violent, implications, he rather shows the story of Macbeth in its dark, brutal and unflinchingly violent beauty, which proves that watching or reading Shakespeare is not nearly as laborious as the common perception today implies, and that it can be as equally violent and vicious and utterly terrifying as any horror film that modern audiences enjoy today.
There is not any doubt that Shakespeare’s plays were verbose and filled with dialogue – they were, after all, plays, where words told the story more than actions. Many adaptations of Shakespearean works keep this element of being very verbose, and sometimes don’t take their own direction in portraying the story, even if there is unlimited opportunities to do so. Kurzel makes sure to adapt Macbeth, word for word, but also to create his own vision, and as much as his version of Macbeth retains and relies on the original words, he also ensures that this film looks unique. Working with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Kurzel creates a hauntingly beautiful landscape of Scotland in the time of Macbeth, with each and every shot looking as if it came straight out of a painting. Each and every scene is well-composed and strikingly beautiful, but not so much that it becomes pretentious, where visuals supersede the story. The beauty of this film only serves to compliment the violent and visceral nature of the story, and every moment, from the grandiose battle scenes were blood is shed liberally, to the quiet moments between Macbeth and his wife, to the dream-like, surreal sequences with the witches, Macbeth is a strikingly beautiful film and probably the most beautifully made film of the year (the only other film that matches Macbeth in terms of beauty is The Revenant).
It seems an unwritten rule for actors exist – at some point, each and every actor has to perform Shakespeare. It is the highest honour and challenge for an actor to take a role, however big or small, in an adaptation of The Bard’s work. Two more actors have been added to the list of great performances in Shakespearean films – Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Fassbender, whether you love him or hate him, always chooses some fascinating projects, and his performance in Macbeth is far superior to his other role from this year, Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, he received more praise and accolades for his performance as the titular character in the wrong film, as his performance in Macbeth is far greater and more challenging than that of Steve Jobs (however, both films require Fassbender to memorize and deliver gargantuan levels of dialogue, which proves that Fassbender is a dedicated actor who is able to handle large volumes of dialouge without compromising his performance). Marion Cotillard, who is one of the finest actresses working today, does an even better job, not only handling the intense dialogue, but in a language that isn’t her own. Cotillard is a perfect Lady Macbeth, and her performance is chilling and cruel. I think both Fassbender and Cotillard give fantastic performances, and in the smaller roles, David Thewlis is great as the doomed King Duncan, and Paddy Considine is wonderful as the loyal Banquo. Sean Harris is absolutely chilling as the vengeful Macduff.
Macbeth is an absolutely beautiful film. It is terrifying, haunting and stays with you long after it has finished. Justin Kurzel has directed a fantastic adaptation of the greatest piece of literature ever written, and while I doubt that this is the last time someone will adapt Macbeth onto the screen, it will certainly be a difficult one to top Kurzel’s adaptation. It is absolutely brutal and truly a terrifyingly visceral film, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Certainly one of the very best of the year, and this is the exact adaptation the play needed, and I hope more people follow in the unflinching footsteps of Justin Kurzel in their attempts to adapt the work of William Shakespeare.