Macbeth reaction: Cannes 2015

Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, was one of our most anticipated of the Cannes Film Festival. Here's Jamie Graham's reaction...

Australian director Justin Kurzel follows his sick-making true-crime debut Snowtown with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Which makes a crazy kind of sense. Both films are about family, disintegration, and a man who is a leader of men choosing to transgress the law. Both films see their protagonists become addicted to dealing death.

An earthy, physical adaptation shot in the Scottish highlands, Kurzel posits a Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, his equilibrium corroded by time spent fighting for King Duncan (David Thewlis) on 11th Century battlefields. Perhaps a product of his splintering sanity, perhaps not, a trio of witches materialise to prophesise that Macbeth will one day become King of Scotland himself, their proclamation stirring his envy, anger and ambition until, spurred on by his wife (Marion Cotillard), he kills the king to ensure his Fate. But as you’ll likely recall from GCSE lessons, this is just the start of Macbeth’s madness: guilt and paranoia eat at his churning guts until he must murder again and again to protect himself from enmity and suspicion.

Whipped by wind and rain, wading through mud and blood, the actors here find reality and functionality in Shakespeare’s prose, reminding us that this is not just one of the great tragedies of the English language but history, too – albeit extensively rewritten. Fassbender excels at playing conflicted characters, his physicality flecked with fragility, and his Macbeth commands the camera as he commands his soldiers, those pale piercing eyes and that tight, wolfish grin glinting with charismatic madness. This is a general who knows the true weight of the sword and what it takes to drive steel through skin and muscle and bone; to feel your own skin drip with others' blood. His accent is little more than a burr compared to some of the true Scots around him – pity the international audiences who must navigate Shakespeare’s prose delivered in thick Scottish brogues – but nothing else about him is remotely diluted.

And yet Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth, speaking a no-accent that can only be described as vaguely and exotically European, threatens to steal the show. We meet Macbeth and his Lady at the funeral of their child, and Cotillard brilliantly conveys a woman who has supplanted motherhood with ruthless ambition. That she does so without grandstanding is more impressive still: she loses her shit without losing her shit, if one can speak so basely while discussing Shakespeare. The quality support cast, meanwhile, includes Sean Harris (Macduff), Jack Reynor (Malcolm) and Paddy Considine (Banquo).

But this is Kurzel’s film as much as anyone else’s, with the director opting to retain large swathes of text while pulling out all stylistic stops to render the play strikingly cinematic. Taking Macbeth on at all requires great courage in light of the Roman Polanski and Orson Welles adaptations, and the 40-year-old filmmaker succeeds by being unafraid to make it his own, forcefully grabbing attention by streaking his grounded take with expressionistic flourishes. It is here that he offers a spy hole deep into Macbeth’s shattering mind, heightening reality with filtered lenses or super-slow mo battle scenes or deafeningly amplified sound design. Kurzel's Macbeth might not play to younger mainstream audiences as well as Baz Luhrmann’s pop cover of Romeo + Juliet, but it is, nonetheless, immensely exciting cinema that demands to been seen.

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