Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth manages to be both heightened and lived-in

The Australian director might appear arrogant by applying so early in his career for membership of the exclusive Macbeth Movie Club – but it would be fair to say he has proved his suitability.

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Quality not quantity has been the order of the day when it comes to filming Macbeth. Orson Welles and Roman Polanski both made versions, while Akira Kurosawa borrowed the plot of the play for Throne of Blood. The Australian director Justin Kurzel, who has only one other feature film to his name, might appear arrogant by applying so early in his career for membership of the exclusive Macbeth Movie Club. But as that one film is Snowtown, about the Adelaide serial killer John Bunting, it would be fair to say he has proved his suitability. Every bit as horrific as the violence in Snowtown was the numbing of Bunting’s young companion, who graduated from witness to accomplice. Something wicked that way went.

There is a numbness also to Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) as he hacks through his opponents on the battlefield. The film stylises combat by switching back and forth between the thrashing melee and a poetically decelerated version of the same scene. It gives notice that the picture will operate on two planes – the brutal and the lyrical. Sometimes these will cross over, with a graphic throat-slitting shown in dreamy slo-mo, just as the nonplussed dead intrude here on the living.

As the film begins, Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard) have just lost a child. It’s the first of several liberties taken with the text. Though justifiable, the danger is that it makes grief, rather than ambition, Macbeth’s tragic flaw. It also allows for a kind of delirium to take root in him before he hears the prophecies of the weird sisters, who look positively ordinary except for the facial scars that suggest ­torture or amputation carried out in the course of a witch-hunt. The upside to turning the Macbeths into grieving parents is that some of the play’s natal imagery acquires an extra frisson, even as other instances – Lady Macbeth’s claim to know “how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks” her – are deprived of their mysteriousness. And it can only amplify the barbarity of the murders of Macduff’s children now that Macbeth himself knows what the death of a child feels like. He’s been there.

Other significant changes involve placing witnesses at the scenes of crimes to which they were not previously privy. Malcolm (Jack Reynor) now walks in only seconds after the murder of his father, King Duncan (David Thewlis). The amount of blood on Macbeth, and the presence in his hand of the murder weapon, go some way towards eliminating reasonable doubt. So, when Malcolm flees, he does so as a kind of Hamlet-in-waiting, cognizant of the identity of his father’s killer but unable to take action.

We might even have felt Malcolm’s anguish, had Kurzel not diluted the murder by cutting away to whatever takes his fancy – Lady Macbeth in her bed or a horse bucking outside in the rain. Snowtown was disturbing in the way it refused to abbreviate or distract from the cruelty it depicted, but it was a lesson Kurzel now seems in a rush to unlearn.

He compensates for that with his staging of another surprising revision. When the members of Macduff’s family are killed, they are burned to death on a beach (a striking echo of the funeral pyre for the Macbeths’ child at the start of the picture). Macbeth lights the stake himself while Lady Macbeth, another of the impotent witnesses in the film, is forced to watch. Kurzel then cuts to evening and to a different shot of the beach, suggesting the nightmare is over. Yet he is merely lulling us into a false sense of security. When the camera pans back round, the bodies are still blazing away stubbornly in the darkness.

Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography grows more singed as the film progresses, finally becoming drenched in orange during the showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris) in the glow of a forest fire. The director makes sure we feel the horror in our ears as well as our eyes by commissioning a score of nagging, sawing strings from his brother, the composer Jed Kurzel. But no matter how heightened this Macbeth gets, it always feels lived-in. The clothes actually look worn rather than plucked from the costume cupboard – the choirboys’ shirts are creased and Macbeth’s regal gown is as shabby as a bathrobe. The one outlandish touch is the stripe of make-up that Lady Macbeth wears at one point across her eyes. It’s as if she’d seen Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner and said: “You know what? That would look nice in powder-blue.”

“Macbeth” opens on 2 October

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left