United Kingdom/France/United States. Directed by Justin Kurzel, 2015. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis. 113 minutes.
It’s a classic story, one many of us have known since our schooldays. In medieval Scotland, a war hero, fresh from a major military victory, receives a cryptic prophecy whose message is nonetheless crystal clear: he is to become King. Yet if he is not part of the royal succession, how will this come to pass? His wife states what he already knows: the surest way to ensure his destiny is to murder the current king and sieze his throne.
This is Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Thane of Glannis and Cawdor, very loosely modeled on the historical High King of Alba Mac Bethad mac Findlaích; who through ambition and treachery becomes King of Scots, and whose subsequent paranoia and madness lead to his downfall.
Director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) and his team of screenwriters conceive their adaptation of the Scottish Play mostly as part war movie, part bloody thriller. That’s not to say they entirely can the tragedy’s political and psychological elements, although Mr. and Mrs. M’s descent into insanity develops rather quickly, with this adaptation putting special emphasis on the couple’s inability to conceive. But Kurzel is clearly most comfortable behind the camera when people are killing each other.
Violence is the order of the day, and blood the major symbolic element; even the sky takes on the distinctive hue of spilled claret. The battle scenes which bookend the picture are remarkably gorgeous, with Braveheart exerting particular influence, most obviously in the facepaint Mackers wears during the battle with Macdonwald’s forces. The production design embodies a rough beauty, reflecting the characters’ baser urges. Even the ceremonial reflects the practical.
In terms of plot, the screenplay mostly hews to the shape and form of its source material, although as always changes must be made. It includes most of the play’s most memorable text. Notable omissions include Banquo’s final exchange with his assassins (“There will be rain to-night…”), and, less forgivably, the witches’ introductory dialog: staging the Scottish Play without “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” and “Something wicked this way comes” is a heresy on the level of omitting “To be, nor not to be” from Hamlet. More successful changes include an increased role for the Witches, and an ominous final scene playing on their prophecy regarding Banquo’s children.
A top-rate adaptation of Shakespeare requires a top-rate cast. Kurzel assembles a strong ensemble led by the great Michael Fassbender as the King and Marion Cotillard as his Lady, supported by Paddy Considine as Banquo, David Thewlis as King Duncan and Sean Harris as Macduff. While excellent, none of the performances are what you’d call revelatory or iconic; Considine perhaps comes closest.
As good as Kurzel’s intepretation of the King of Scotland’s tale is, it doesn’t quite achieve the greatness for which we might have hoped. But built on a strong visual foundation, it remains eminently enjoyable.