Macbeth Review: A Grand, Though Not Definitive Adaptation

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For some Shakespeare adaptations, stage and film can hardly make a difference. A great example is Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which felt like backyard theater with friends. This version of Macbeth is the opposite: an epic.

Little is done to the dialogue that built this story as a classic, but the landscapes and cinematic scope lends gravitas to an already dark tale. There’s hardly a sunny day in Justin Kurzel’s gloomy, grisly adaptation. It has the aesthetic of an episode of Game of Thrones with the words of William Shakespeare subbed in for the words of George R.R. Martin (actually, Thrones fans, this retelling made me realize Stannis Baratheon is just Macbeth, witches and all). That’ll certainly make this an easy version of the story to market to a modern audience.

But like most film adaptations of Shakespeare works, what sings as a beautiful piece of writing doesn’t always keep the same melody for a two-hour movie. There are slow parts where the stars and the script get bogged down by passages taken directly from the text. Some of the soliloquies work better than others depending on how they’re edited into this gargantuan plot.

Luckily, even when the pacing is mellow, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are positively riveting to watch. Fassbender has perhaps never seemed more committed on the big screen than when delivering Shakespearean dialogue. He sells Macbeth’s decay into madness in a manner only the best actors are capable of. Kurzel has no problem just letting the camera linger on his face, allowing both the bombast of the stage acting and the subtlety of screen acting to mesh in one of the great Shakespearean performances of our time.

Cotillard is just as good as Lady Macbeth, commanding when she needs to be, hollow and cold when she’s revealing herself. This may not be the definitive version of the story, but these actors’ performances might just be the definitive versions of these characters on the big screen.

Combined with some truly stunning photography and you’ve got a version of Macbeth that’s pretty damn good. As a film, Shakespeare adaptations come with their limitations and this one does little to break them. But sometimes all you really need is two actors more than capable of playing their roles for a film to at least work. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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