“As the shortest, sharpest and most stormily violent of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth may be the most readily cinematic,” begins Guy Lodge in Variety. “The swirling mists of the Highlands, tough to fabricate in a theater, practically rise off the printed page. So it’s odd that, while Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet get dusted off at least once a generation by filmmakers, the Scottish Play hasn’t enjoyed significant bigscreen treatment since Roman Polanski’s admirable if tortured 1971 version. The wait for another may be even longer after Justin Kurzel’s scarcely improvable new adaptation: Fearsomely visceral and impeccably performed, it’s a brisk, bracing update, even as it remains exquisitely in period.”
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw notes that Kurzel is “famous for his brutal crime movie Snowtown—the story of how a warrior-nobleman is encouraged to commit regicide by his ruthlessly ambitious wife, who then descends into bewilderment and despair as her husband fanatically reinforces his position with an escalating series of pre-emptive murders…. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a dream-team pairing, actors who radiate charisma, perhaps more charisma than can be entirely absorbed into the fabric of the film. As ever, Cotillard is able to convey enormous amounts with her face without saying a word. Fassbender is arguably less good with Macbeth’s introverted vulnerability and self-questioning, but always effortlessly virile and watchable, responding to Macbeth’s outbursts of anger and imperious paranoia.”
And “the pared-down adaptation by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie and Todd Louiso feels jagged and spare—the bleached, modernist carcass of the original verse—while the sheer innovation of the staging lends a flesh-creeping freshness to every familiar toss and turn of Shakespeare’s plot,” finds the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “Tonally, it is far closer to the fractured poetry of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land than Game of Thrones, yet the battle sequences have a serious, blockbuster beauty and heft, with thunderous, slow-motion combat backlit by blood-red sun rays, mist and smoke.”
“Sure there’s violence, but its impact has been muted, hidden, tucked under the seams,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “We won’t state exactly, but a major amendment has been made to the play’s climax, and it won’t only cause Shakespeare scholars to gag on their Merlot.”
Kunzel “does not offer a reinterpretation of the text so much as a head-first plunge into its depths, dredging up whole chunks of Shakespeare’s verse and raising them aloft like he’s ripping the beating heart from a mastodon,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist.
For Kaleem Aftab, writing at Indiewire, “two things stand out about the stunning opening battle—the magnificent cinematography by Adam Arkapaw and the cutting of the text into soliloquies, used like voiceover as we see the action plays out…. Arkapaw photographed the critically acclaimed television shows Top of the Lake and True Detective. This television work has most influenced his lensing of Macbeth, which includes a fantastic use of mist and fire that creates the atmosphere of a horror film, and candles as prominent as bonfires that light the hills. Throw into the mix three straggly clairvoyants who come from different generations—old, adult, and child—and Macbeth develops the ominous atmosphere of The Wicker Man more than anything in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.”
Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter: “The whole opening act is punchy as hell as Kurzel and crack editor Chris Dickens (Slumdog Millionaire, Shaun of the Dead) deftly weave together contracted versions of key scenes and invented sequences that usefully fill out the story—like a battle that sees Macbeth, his right-hand man Banquo (Paddy Considine) and their men defeat invading Norsemen and the traitor Macdonwald, all done with a mix of slo-mo and drop-frame speed that emphasizes the carnage and chaos of medieval warfare.”
“This is just the intelligent and intense sophomore feature we’d hoped for,” writes Demetrios Matheou at Thompson on Hollywood. “The scene in which Lady Macbeth challenges her husband’s manhood in order to push him towards murder manifests here as sexual seduction. At this stage, Cotillard exudes some of the manipulative menace of her two roles for Christopher Nolan, in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises; playing Lady Macbeth as French (while the other actors speak with Scottish accents) also sets her apart from the community that she inadvertently destroys from within. But once the initial bloody deed is done, the actress reveals a woman not only succumbing to guilt, but to fear of the monster she’s created.”
The BBC’s Nicholas Barber suggests that “it’s soon apparent that the film isn’t set in 11th-Century Scotland at all. The reason Kurzel’s Macbeth is so awe-inspiring, but also vaguely unsatisfying, is that it’s actually set in Hell.”
From Screen‘s un-bylined review: “Whatever viewers think of Kurzel’s Macbeth, they won’t be thinking of Polanski’s Macbeth or Welles’s Macbeth or any other Macbeth when they see it—and that’s a considerable achievement in itself.”
Meantime, Ramin Setoodeh interviews Fassbender for Variety.
Updates, 5/24: Kurzel “approaches the classic tale of murder and moral decline with the same level of visceral stylization that distinguished his debut, pulling off perhaps the fiercest cinematic translation of Shakespeare to date,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage:
Visually, Macbeth is breathtaking. Mostly shooting on location in Scotland, Kurzel and his DP Adam Arkapaw (who also shot Snowtown) render the Highlands as a spectacular backdrop of mountains and valleys forever enveloped in thick and flowing mist, while the halls of the castle are bestowed with an impossible grandeur. Despite their magnitude, the settings are made to feel confined. The horizon is permanently blocked off by an impenetrable wall of clouds and the interiors are treated as insular, giving the impression that the action is unfolding on gigantic stages. Together with the gorgeous production design, costumes and make-up, which take liberties with historicity, the cinematography’s expressionistic lighting and liberal use of slow-motion imbues the film with a mystical aura. All these elements come together in an innovative form of theatricality that provides a suitable context for the Early Modern English, which always runs the risk of feeling stilted in a modern film.
At the Dissolve, Mike D’Angelo‘s “temptation to apply the famous ‘sound and fury’ verse to this almost heavy-metal adaptation is strong. Must…resist…”
Updates, 5/28: “The movie is a monotonous, monochromatic pageant of slashing and stabbing and slow motion, of men screaming to the digitally altered skies,” writes Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “Kurzel, an Australian who somehow shares adaptation credit with two other writers, gives the movie machismo, but even Zack Synder’s 300 was desperate to give you more than that. Snyder, at least, gave you abs.”
Nigel M. Smith talks with Kurzel for Indiewire.
Updates, 12/3: For Nick Pinkerton, writing for Reverse Shot, this is “a film whose vaulting ambition is brought to earth by the counterfeiting of funereal monotony for tragic heft…. It isn’t the conceptual spin that ultimately undoes Kurzel’s Macbeth, but his ponderous approach, hefting each scene on top of the last as though moviemaking was an act of grunting, straining brute force, stacking up a big, bleak cairn.”
Michael Sragow for Film Comment: “Nothing transcendent survives this version intact, not even Macbeth’s brilliant verbal breast-beating—the asides, monologues, and soliloquies that convey his vivid imagination and thus his tragic stature. Kurzel misdirects Fassbender to speak his lines as if he’s taking a polygraph: deliberately and flatly, whether he’s addressing a co-conspirator or just talking to himself. His delivery is so tight-lipped (and the photography often so dark) that you can’t tell when he’s moving his mouth or going in and out of voiceover. The entire cast comes down with the mumbles—and high drama is no place for low talkers.”
At the AV Club, Mike D’Angelo adds that “while no movie that stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard could signify nothing, this one doesn’t signify a whole lot.”
In Brooklyn Magazine, Ryan Vlastelica suggests that this Macbeth “channels video games or Zack Snyder as much as the Bard. You know the drill: spraying blood in extreme slow motion; close-ups filmed with a camera that’s not just handheld but actively shaking; stylized tableaux of actors and extras are arranged artfully and standing motionless. The question of whether these choices are effective is obscured by the fact that they don’t feel like choices; Kurzel isn’t absent here, but his presence is felt less than the presence of genre directors who came before, and from whom he’s borrowing.”
On the other hand, the Voice‘s Alan Scherstuhl: “I’ve never seen filmed Shakespeare so entirely removed from the playhouse—or given such full, fresh life.”
Updates, 12/25: “Before deciding whether or not this new version was successful, I wanted to form a conception of what a successful on-screen Macbeth might look like, and to understand why this particular play has proved so perennially alluring to ambitious directors.” Slate‘s Dana Stevens delves into a century’s worth of adaptations.
Kurzel’s “is just devastatingly gorgeous to look at,” finds Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com.