Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in a dark new adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, directed by the Justin Kurzel. Nicholas Barber takes a look from the Cannes Film Festival.

Superstitious actors like to call Macbeth “the Scottish play”, but Shakespeare’s tragedy of vaulting ambition has never been more Scottish than it is in Justin Kurzel’s startling adaptation. The looming mountains of the Highlands are rarely out of shot, every man in the cast has been issued with a regulation straggly ginger beard, and the actors (with one exception) have almost-perfect Scottish accents. Macbeth himself, Michael Fassbender, has obviously been listening to his X-Men buddy, James McAvoy: close your eyes and you can picture McAvoy speaking every line.

But despite these tartan touches, 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.

Radically cutting down and revising Shakeseare’s text, Kurzel and his co-writers open with a stark, wordless scene of Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard) on a bleak hillside, lighting a funeral pyre for their baby. Minutes later, the battle in which Macbeth proves his worth to King Duncan (David Thewlis) is hardly a display of chivalric valour and charismatic leadership. Macbeth’s woad-smeared troops simply charge at their opponents like beery football hooligans. It’s only Macbeth’s wild-eyed viciousness that wins the day.

Afterwards, we move onto the cheery sight of a dog chewing on a corpse, while Macbeth and his lieutenant, Banquo (Paddy Considine), sleep on the freezing ground. And after that, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don’t entertain their grateful king in a fine castle, but in a scattering of tents on a moorland. The wind whistles, thunder rumbles, and there is more rolling fog than in a decade’s worth of Hammer horror movies.

Foul is fair

Kurzel, the Australian director of Snowtown, has made a film which is, to quote the witches, bloody, bold and resolute. Obliterating any trace of stage-bound stuffiness, he replaces it with the mud and gore of an anti-war movie and the stylised immediacy of a graphic novel: the slow-motion blood-spurting recalls a previous Fassbender film, 300, except with jagged wounds in place of washboard stomachs. Kurzel does whatever he can do make every scene more nightmarish, whether that means including a procession of zombies (you read that correctly), or giving an inspired, apocalyptic twist to the Birnam Wood prophecy. At times, it seems as if he has shifted the action to a forbidding alien planet: Duncan and the royal court favour Jedi-like dressing gowns, while the witches’ cosmetic facial scarring makes them appear half-Klingon. Speaking of science fiction, Macbeth is the second film I’ve seen at Cannes in which an Australian director has plunged us into a blasted netherworld of feral violence. After Mad Max, we have Mad Mac.

Kurzel’s jaw-dropping vision makes Macbeth the most significant new Shakespeare film since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. But as striking as the unremitting darkness may be, it does tend to obscure our view of a doughty general bringing about his own tragic downfall. Fassbender is typically intense, attacking the role with teeth-baring savagery, but his Macbeth is a homicidal maniac right from the beginning, so when he becomes slightly more manic and slightly more homicidal, it’s no great loss. In Kurzel’s grisly purgatory, stabbing your king through the heart seems to be par for the course. As for Lady Macbeth, Cotillard is electrifying, but, with her reptilian glare and her coiled braids suggesting Medusa’s snakes, she doesn’t look as if she’s tasted the milk of human kindness in her life. (It’s also a pity that her accent sometimes struggles all the way north from France to England, but can’t make it across the border to Scotland.)

What’s missing from Kurzel’s audacious drama is the feeling that anyone or anything is changing. There’s no light and shade – well, no light, anyway. Shakespeare’s comic-relief scenes have been excised, and there’s even a coda which promises that the bloodshed is only just getting started. “Lay on, Macduff,” says Macbeth, shortly beforehand. “And damned be him who first says, hold, enough.” He’s wasting his words. In Kurzel’s Scotland, everyone is damned already.

Still, it’s a hell of a film.

★★★★☆

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