Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in “Macbeth,” a bleak, atmospheric version directed by Justin Kurzel. (Courtesy Weinstein Co.)

New big-screen ‘Macbeth’ has merit

Red are the skies and black are the hearts. Justin Kurzel’s visceral rendition of “Macbeth” contains so much blood, smoke, fire and death that Shakespeare’s tragic story and poetic language might easily have been upstaged by it all and carried no more weight than the ashes on the moors.

But a strong cast and efficient narrative techniques make this movie a respectable addition to cinema’s Shakespeare catalog and an absorbing tale of ruthless political ambition.

Kurzel (“Snowtown”) and three screenwriters have retained Shakespeare’s original words while condensing the play and altering some plot specifics, seemingly to attract contemporary viewers. Purists may object, but the playwright’s words and wisdoms are intact.

In 11th-century Scotland, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), an army general, places shells on the eyes of his dead young child and then endures further grief on the battlefield.

Following his victory, Macbeth and army pal Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches.

Stirred by their prophesy that he will become king, and urged to take action by his machinating wife (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth murders the existing king, Duncan (David Thewlis).

After assuming the throne, Macbeth kills anyone he perceives as a threat to his power.

Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, is consumed with guilt over her role in Duncan’s murder and distressed when Macbeth burns Lady Macduff and her child to death. These feelings, combined with her grief over the loss of her own child, cause madness.

Additional battle scenes build to a showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris).

Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t compare with the “Macbeth” adaptations by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa or Roman Polanski.

Kurzel can’t make Shakespeare’s tragedy resonate, and the actors’ unlyrical delivery doesn’t do justice to Shakespeare’s verse. The story alterations, especially the use of a dead child to, presumably, make Lady Macbeth more sympathetic, can prove problematic.

Yet the movie is still a worthy 110 minutes of Shakespeare and a strikingly grim depiction of how decent people can turn monstrous.

Whether showing us dead or imperiled children, blood-red skies, black landscapes lit with fire, or mysterious flakes that are more likely to be ash than snow, Kurzel makes bleakness captivating. His battle scenes, which effectively use slow motion, potently convey the brutality of these characters and our species.

The visual merits might have eclipsed the human story, but Fassbender and Cotillard supply the necessary emotion. Fassbender, with war paint on his face and a crazed glint in his eye, personifies soul-destroying ambition. Cotillard, if she doesn’t quite nail Lady Macbeth’s nastier aspects, commands attention and weeps exquisitely.

She delivers the “Out damn spot” speech masterfully.

Among the supporting cast, Harris, as Macduff transforms into a force of vengeance, stands out.

REVIEW
Macbeth
Three stars
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris
Written by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie
Directed by Justin Kurzel
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes

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