Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a good movie, but it falls short of being great. Which is weird because the ingredients all seem to be there. That shortcoming is also a nuisance because at times, the movie looks so damn good and well-made, only to trip and fall over technical details. Let me grind my dagger of the mind and have at it.
First, the cast. Michael Fassbender in the title role is a great plus (when isn’t he?). He plays Macbeth with the right kind of doubt, despair and determination, slowly slipping over to the dark side. Paddy Considine is a fantastic Banquo, the moral centre of the story. In fact, it’s Considine who disappears best in his role. David Thewlis, he of the scraggly face, plays Duncan. All those actors work just fine. I have a problem with Jack Reynor, who is simply too young for the role of Malcolm. While that is a simple case of miscasting, I don’t think Marion Cotillard is miscast in any way. Her being French, it’s also not a language problem. It’s just that she seems to consciously act against her lines instead of going with them to where they lead her. She moves when sitting still would give her more weight, and she kneels when she should be upright. If there is a conscious conceit in that gap between action and text, then I’ve missed it completely.
Ah, yes, the text. It’s been a while since I’ve seen or read the Shakespeare play, but it seems to me that the writers have cut too much. The movie is not even two hours long, and there is not much dialogue – or monologue, for that matter. Where has it gone, and why was it dropped? One example: After Macbeth kills Duncan, isn’t there a great speech Macbeth has? In the movie, he lies down besides the dead king, which is surprising and visually interesting, but I miss that speech. I don’t mean to say that Shakespeare’s texts are sacrosanct, but if you cut lines, you need to have a good reason.
But let me say how good the movie looks. There are moments where the whole screen is full of slow-moving warriors, their swords drawn, snowflakes, fog and soot in the air. Later, the whole screen is burning, which, to Macbeth, are the fires of hell, wherein he is a yellow shadow backlit by a wall of flames. There are four witches, one of them a young girl. I found that addition surprising, and surprisingly creepy. There is the milky light from a low winter sun trapped in a cloud of fog, or coming through the slats of a wooden church wall with its cross-shaped aperture. Those scenes work – they also work when director Justin Kurzel decides to use slow motion. What I find utterly distracting, however, is when he decides to speed scenes up, if only for a second or two. Doesn’t he trust the suspense of his own screenplay. If you speed things up, the scenes are barely scannable for the audience, so what does a movie gain by them? The sped-up scenes are particularly annoying when there is a slow-motion scene just before or just after. The atmosphere that the movie manages to build up so brilliantly collapses with those gimmicks. There is also that unhappy moment where Macbeth sees the dagger in the hand of one of the dead. We see it once, and then never again in the hands of the ghost. Why not show the dagger going from the ghost’s hand into Macbeth’s? Let the audience decide whether that thing is real or not.
I usually go for the atmosphere in a movie where there is precious little else to like. Macbeth has much more to offer, but by introducing technical gimmicks, and by throwing out too much of the text, it sabotages itself. It wouldn’t have hurt the film if it had made wiser choices in its cuts. And a movie very rarely gains by high-speed scenes. It much improves by Macbeth standing forlorn and pensive on the battlefield, surrounded by warriors.