The best recent Shakespeare adaptations, particularly the ones that insist on the anachronism of using the Bard’s original dialogue, often function as less reverent tributes to the texts (there are, after all, about a billion of those) than as fascinating examples of post-modern pop art. Take the broad, colorful strokes of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, or the bloody agitprop of Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, both of which find new grooves in their source materials largely through the techniques they use to visually represent them.
With his Macbeth, director Justin Kurzel—ambitiously tackling Shakespeare after only one other film, 2011’s true-crime saga The Snowtown Murders—at first appears to be attempting to express a similarly contemporary energy: A furiously violent early set piece depicts gladiatorial combatants lunging at each other, grunting and in slow-motion, in a 300-style, parting-of-the-Red-Sea-like formation. But aside from an even more hellish, fetishistically aestheticized finale, Kurzel’s tactics here tend to skew more traditional.
The filmmakers do tweak some of the play’s catalytic moments (characters who weren’t present during the titular tyrant’s most gruesome escapades are here made to bear witness), affecting interpersonal dynamics and degrees of guilt, but not to any particularly different ends. Kurzel’s still mounting the same time-old tale of power’s corrupting influence, even when he chooses to have Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) die by the already-bloodied hand of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) himself, rather than that of his men, or when he ushers Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) to take in her husband’s brutal handiwork just after his murder of King Duncan (David Thewlis).
Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth may be more aware and therefore more present than the character is typically (and allowed the agency of initiating sex with her tormented and hallucinating husband, twice), but she still exits the film as passively and unceremoniously as she does the play, which leaves the actress ultimately unable to wring any more depth from the part than those who’ve come before her. Fassbender gets the less encumbered role, wisely embracing Macbeth’s id-driven repulsiveness, downplaying the tragedy of a character whose skeletal definition has never warranted much empathy.
Macbeth’s failings really lie with Kurzel, who proves time and again why directors like Fiennes and Luhrmann—or, more recently, Matías Piñeiro—have used their camera to reshape the meaning and the feeling behind Shakespeare’s prose. Scene after scene of tediously rehearsed recitation just gets dull, and it wants for compliment here in the production team’s dimly lit, sparsely decorated set design. Throughout, Kurzel’s stagey pretensions clash with each of his aesthetic choices, from the intimate realism of his interiors to his ultraviolent battlefield set pieces, anachronisms that evoke no other impression of the director so much as an arthouse Zack Snyder.