Director Justin Kurzel has a way with visceral action, as was seen in 2011’s “The Snowtown Murders.” That same verve is keenly present in his new adaptation of “Macbeth.”
Unlike the play, the movie opens with the death the child of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard). The three witches appear later with their prophecies, but the opening scenes are virtually wordless, with the child’s cremation on a funeral pyre leading into a dramatic battle scene featuring Macbeth’s loyalist forces battling Macdonwald, the traitor.
The battle is furious, with stabbings and swordplay worthy of the TV cable series “Spartacus.” And only after the battle is over does Macbeth hear the prophecy that he’ll become king.
Kurzel’s strategy in changing the opening of the play highlights what he sees as a central theme of “Macbeth” but that others may not so readily endorse: that Macbeth was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, not only from his brutal battles but also from the death of his child.
Certainly, Shakespeare is open to interpretation, and Kurzel has every right to make such an assertion. But this strategy also nearly wanders into the territory of justification, or perhaps empathetic explanation, rather than focusing on Macbeth’s tragic ambitions.
At the press conference after the screening, Fassbender said he thinks Kurzel’s PTSD interpretation is valid. “People say it’s a story of ambition, but I think it’s a story of loss … of a child and of their sanity.”
As Macbeth, Fassbender is excellent, especially in the scene where he kills Scotland’s King Duncan (David Thewlis). And we immediately begin to sense that Macbeth is descending into madness, perhaps out of guilt but also out of a lust for power.
As Lady Macbeth, Cotillard has a bigger challenge in mastering the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language, but she has always had the ability to reach out to an audience and make even unlikable characters somehow appealing.
The movie was filmed in Scotland, during the winter, and the landscape adds a brutality to the already-brutal war scenes.
But while the fighting is well-staged and the actors are nearly flawless, there’s one problem. The score intrudes on some of the soliloquies, and it’s sometimes hard to hear the actors. That doesn’t make the movie significantly flawed, especially if you know the play. But it’s irritating and easily fixable. Let’s hope they do so.
“Macbeth” closes the Cannes competition, with the awards being handed out Sunday. It has a shot at the Palme, but many critics are still leaning toward “Son of Saul,” “Carol” and “Dheepan.”