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Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), Duke of Scotland, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself. (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

 Macbeth (2015)
I wouldn’t necessarily call Macbeth my favourite Shakespeare play, because I’m not secure enough in my understanding of The Bard’s work to claim a favourite. But three of my favourite filmed Shakespeare adaptations – Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Japanese: Kumunosu-jo, 1957), and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) – are relatively accurate versions of Macbeth, so I clearly appear to prefer it on a cinematic level. The cinematic possibilities of the play are tied to its open-ended approach to multiple genres. Pedantically, it is a marked as a tragedy, but it’s also a war story and shaded by supernatural horror. Justin Kurzel’s 2015 version is certainly a lesser adaptation, in that it lacks the raw dramatic power of those aforementioned variations, but it carries itself with enough poise and hypnotic imagery to deserve consideration from other Macbeth enthusiasts.

Macbeth is only Kurzel’s second feature film as director, following the true-crime drama Snowtown (2011). Though I haven’t seen that film, I can still surmise that he is developing a very distinctive, graphic, and modern style. This particular production’s modest budget (I’m surprised to learn it may have cost as much as $15 million) leads to some beautifully bare production design (aside from castle interiors). This may conjure unflattering comparisons to made-for-TV adaptations (perhaps the Rupert Goold-directed BBC/PBS version?), but the comparatively humble approach is neatly woven into an offbeat ‘found location’ aesthetic. The default mode is sort of a dream state that evokes the flavour of similarly artistic, esoteric, and modestly budgeted costume epics, namely Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) and Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013). It doesn’t directly quote or mimic either, nor does it achieve quite the same thematic bliss, but I get the feeling that it will elicit similar reactions – both positive and negative.

 Macbeth (2015)
The screenplay, by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso, is unique in that it features possibly the least on-screen dialogue of any Macbeth adaptation. And, despite the screenplay sticking closely to the original plot, basic narrative order, and even the general act structure, it might be the most abridged and simplified version of the story to still use Shakespeare’s original prose. The speed of the narrative and use of overlapping elements (including montages) will likely bother purists, but the efficiency of the storytelling is refreshing and I suspect that viewers unfamiliar with the source material will get the gist of the story. This relative simplicity acts as a counterweight to the heady visuals and the demanding dialogue. The outstanding cast, which is bestrew with British character actors, like Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and (briefly) David Thewlis, makes every one of their flowery words count. In accordance with the condensed narrative, they depend on inflection and tone over content to get the point across. Kurzel’s secret weapon is the fact that Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard appear to have been born to play Macbeth and his bride. Their pairing feels downright ordained. It’s certainly entertaining to watch them cut loose, especially Fassbender when he’s reveling in the malaise of bored and drunk Macbeth.

Video


Macbeth was shot using Arri Alexa XT digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw embrace every ounce of the format, including heavy colour timing, super clean gradations, tight elemental separation (even in blurry backgrounds), and lots of low light compositions. For better or worse, it actually looks a lot like the Game of Thrones season set that I was reviewing at the same time as this disc. The prevalent darkness creates the most problems in terms of noise, but the digital grit rarely appears to be the results of compression. There are, however, a few minor haloes around the absolute sharpest edges. Otherwise, details are very impressive, especially the close-up textures. The colour grading alternates between excessively limiting orange and teal pairings (some scenes are almost monochrome orange or teal, and others are a mix of the two) and more naturalistic and desaturated palettes. The difference in colour is usually an obvious nod to the emotion of the scene. For example, darkness and desaturation represents sadness/malaise, fiery and vivid hues representspassion/anger. Blacks can appear weak during candle-lit sequences, but are quite tight as the palette sinks into pure redness for the extended climax.

 Macbeth (2015)

Audio


Macbeth is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. This is a detail-oriented mix that spends an awful lot of time almost fetishistically dwelling on the intricacies of stretched leather, swishing cloth, and whispered dialogue. And let me assure you, a lot of the dialogue is whispered. Despite the uncompressed status of the track, you will have to turn your volume up pretty high to understand what anyone is saying. There are a couple of big action sequences, but they’re presented in such a stylized fashion that there isn’t a lot of directional enhancement. Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother, supplies the musical support. His partially traditional score wraps almost the entire film, ebbing and flowing through repeated, ambient themes that occasionally fade into less defined environmental sounds.

Extras


  • Making Macbeth (8:00, HD) – A relatively short EPK where Kurzel, producer Iain Canning, and actos Fassbender and Cotillard discuss their approach to the material, the casting process, and locations.
  • Q&A with Michael Fassbender (20:10, HD) – Footage from a post screening interview with the actor conducted by critic Joe Neumaier in New York.


 Macbeth (2015)

Overall


This particular film probably won’t be remembered as a ‘classic’ rendition of Macbeth, like the Polanski and Kurosawa versions, but, even if it is forgotten in the long run, it’s worth viewing for its distinctly moody, tone poem approach to the material. This Blu-ray is sadly short on extras, but does look and sound quite nice.

 Macbeth (2015)
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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