Anybody who thinks Shakespeare has no relevance to contemporary society has obviously never read any of his texts or has somehow remained oblivious to the skulduggery that has played out within Australian political life in recent years. From the double-crossing to the backstabbing to the quests for power fuelled by ego, you could be mistaken for thinking that the narrative of Australian state and federal politics has been ripped straight from the pages of this very story. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that this latest screen adaptation of Macbeth is helmed by Australian director Justin Kurzel. There seems little doubt that this cinematic rendering is an attempt to piggyback on the success of Game of Thrones and the myriad other historical dramas that have flooded the television landscape in recent years. Whilst Kurzel’s film is neither as violent nor as sexy as Game of Thrones and the like, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the power of the story.
Although there are some somewhat kooky elements to Shakepeare’s tale of greed, such as the fact that Macbeth’s murderous ascent to the throne stems from a prophecy proffered by three witches (although this is perhaps no more ludicrous than the idea that ‘faceless men’ can similarly influence the rise and fall of Australian political leaders from both major parties), this is ultimately a morality play about the consequences of greed and an unbridled quest for power at the expense of humility and humanity. A fearless Scottish general who leads his troops to victory over invading armies from Ireland and Norway, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is anointed Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan (David Thewlis). However, Macbeth is intrigued by the possibility that the remainder of the witches’ prophecy – that he will be crowned king – might be true, but he is uncertain how or when this might happen. However, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) suffers no such uncertainty and encourages her husband to take matters into his own by dispensing with Duncan at the first opportunity. Murder ensues and Macbeth becomes king, only to find himself paranoid and fearful of the threat posed by Macduff (Sean Harris), a nobleman who opposed Macbeth’s ascension. Much more murder ensues before Macbeth starts a descent into madness that ultimately leads to the climactic, fateful showdown with Macduff, all of which happens in very quick time.
From a technical and performance perspective, there is nothing at all wrong with this telling of what is a very well known story. Fassbender and Cotillard (whose Lady Macbeth is much less maniacal than previous renditions) are exemplary as one of literature’s most villainous couples and the supporting turns from the likes of Thewlis, Harris and Paddy Considine as Banquo are also great. Likewise, the whole thing looks splendid, from the costumes to the set design to the cinematography from Adam Arkapow that is breathtakingly bleak, pitching medieval Scotland as a land that is miserable beyond compare, which is certainly in keeping with the overarching tone of the story. Despite all this, I just couldn’t help but wonder; what is the point? I mean, this story has been filmed so many times before that I really expected (hoped) to see something different in this instance. Yes, it is brooding and dense and powerful as a morality tale of the highest order but, other than utilising the advances in technology to create some splendid-looking sequences, Kurzel hasn’t really brought anything new to the table. Maybe it doesn’t really matter though. Maybe each new version is simply about utilising the technologies and talent of the day to keep these great literary works at the forefront of public consciousness – which in itself is a noble enough goal.
Of course, given the low-key nature and limited release of Kurzel’s only previous directorial outing – the controversial but critically well-received Snowtown – perhaps this is a chance for the director to showcase his talents – to audiences and industry alike – as much as anything else. Whilst the final film is an eerie, sombre affair that is executed extremely well, it is Roman Polanski’s 1971 telling that perhaps remains as the quintessential celluloid version of a story with themes, actions and behaviours that continue to play out in business and politics today.