Macbeth: Shakespeare of Our Time and for Our Time


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Editor’s Notes: Macbeth is currently out in limited theatrical release. 

Justin Kurzel’s (The Snowtown Murders) grand, brilliant, magnificent adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (aka “The Scottish Play) opens with a child, a dead child, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth’s (Marion Cotillard) preadolescent son. Wracked by silent grief and unspoken despair, Macbeth places two stones over his son’s eyes. The scene doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s play. It’s a gloss on a line uttered by Lady Macbeth that suggests she once had and once lost a son, leaving her and Macbeth childless, a medieval power couple without a future defined, at least in part, by the generations that follow, a lacunae or void that, under at least Kurzel’s interpretation, partially explains Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s seemingly unfettered desire for power, wealth, and social status and which, given the prophecy spelled out by the three witches post-battle in the opening scenes, bequeaths a brief, tumultuous kingship on Macbeth, but a line of kings on his onetime friend, fellow warrior, and future foe, Banquo (Paddy Considine).

Justin Kurzel’s grand, brilliant, magnificent adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth . . . 

Kurzel’s additions or alterations to Shakespeare’s play don’t end there, of course. Fully taking advantage of the play’s cinematic possibilities, Kurzel stages an opening battle referenced and described in the play as a brutal, gory clash between Macbeth’s warriors and the opponents of King Duncan (David Thewlis). With painted faces and leather armor, Macbeth’s men (some “men” are actually boys) win the fog- and mist-shrouded day. Kurzel mixes shots of the battle at real or full speed with shots of Macbeth in super slow motion, the latter meant to augment the audience’s experience of Macbeth’s interior, subjective experience of war. This Macbeth doesn’t emerge unscathed, but worn down, mentally, emotionally, and physically, haunted by the face of a teenage boy who loses his life in the battle. The scene adds psychological shading to Macbeth’s actions, but it’s a risky, potentially questionable move by Kurzel and his screenwriters and one unlikely to satisfy Shakespeare purists who prefer inference and ambiguity to specificity and non-ambiguity.

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In Kurzel’s adaptation, Macbeth returns home a feted hero, a newly crowned thane (lord), celebrated for his victory over Duncan’s opponents. Macbeth, however, rules over a small, barren patch of land, a few wooden structures, including a primitive church, and the makeshift, freestanding tents where Duncan, in an ill-timed, ill-conceived decision that likely contributes to his untimely end at the end of Macbeth’s well-used dagger, reaffirms his son Malcolm’s right of succession, both a rebuke to and a reminder of Macbeth’s status within the socio-political order. With an assist from Lady Macbeth, giving voice and unconditional support to Macbeth’s traitorous, monstrous ambition, he slips into Duncan’s tent and stabs him repeatedly in a rage fueled at least partially fueled by battlefield trauma: Macbeth murders to fulfill his ambition to be king and to (self) fulfill a prophecy, but also out of an internal imperative, an attempt, however misplaced, to expunge the first of many ghosts (he killed to protect Duncan’s power and title, but also saw men and boys die for the same cause).

At least to some moviegoers Kurzel’s highly stylized approach will seem like too much style over Shakespeare’s admittedly deep substance, but that’s a short-sighted, cramped idea . . . 

Following the arc of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth becomes king after Duncan’s son, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), flees the scene, a suspect in his father’s regicide. Macbeth’s tenuous hold over his sanity, undermined by his guilt and paranoia, leads him to eliminate his closest rival, Banquo, but the survival of Banquo’s son, Fleance (Lochlann Harris), leaves the second part of the prophecy open. In a long, torturous scene, Macbeth’s celebration of his coronation unravels as Banquo’s silently accusatory ghost, repeatedly appears, which in turn confirms the suspicions of another thane, Macduff (Sean Harris), and Macbeth’s downward spiral. He begins to lose everything he’s gained through violence and betrayal, becoming a despised petty tyrant, losing the support of Duncan’s men and Lady Macbeth’s unqualified support (she descends into a guilt-fueled madness of her own), and facing a vengeful Macduff at the climax.

Kurzel places Lady Macbeth at one of the most harrowing, disturbing scenes in Shakespeare’s play: the immolation of Macduff’s family, including his children. It’s one more strike by Macbeth against the symbolic tyranny of a fully formed, traditional family and the promise of immortality of sorts. Macbeth’s actions succeed, if only temporarily. It also turns Lady Macbeth against her husband and his seemingly unrelenting bloodlust. On one level of interpretation, it seems like a superficial gloss on Shakespeare’s play. By placing Lady Macbeth front-and-center at their murder, however, Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness becomes all the more realistic and grounded rather than perfunctory and rushed as it’s always seemed in Shakespeare’s play (a result, possibly of Macbeth coming down to us over the centuries in a shortened, amended form).

At least to some moviegoers Kurzel’s highly stylized approach will seem like too much style over Shakespeare’s admittedly deep substance, but that’s a short-sighted, cramped idea, one that places Shakespeare’s words over the visual elements necessary to bring those elements to rich, meaningful life. Albeit pruned and rearranged to maximize narrative impact, Shakespeare’s soaring, metaphorical dialogue is still there, of course. It’s often delivered in sotto voce, in hushed whispers and tones by a uniformly excellent, uniformly committed cast beginning, but not ending with Michael Fassbender, and not in the typical declarative declamations typical of stage adaptations (where volume and over-emphasis is a necessity, not a choice). Kurzel also shoots in natural light, starting with warm, autumnal colors before descending in a perhaps all too literal hell as Birnam Wood burns, bringing ash and smoke to Macbeth’s castle, fulfilling yet another part of the prophecy (the last part fixes Macbeth’s fate to Macduff’s).

Kurzel’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play closes with a new scene, a literal and metaphorical bookend to the first scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth mourning the loss of their only child. With Macbeth defeated and Malcolm, installed as the “rightful” king, returning a dubious moral order (dubious because it’s wholly dependent on violence for its existence), Banquo’s son, Fleance recovers Macbeth’s sword and first stumbles and then runs into the smoke- and ash-covered distance, suggesting that the cycle of Hobbesian (“all against all”) violence won’t end with Macbeth’s defeat, but will continue into the distant future. It may be a grim, bleak view of human nature, but it’s also one borne out by history. It’s Shakespeare of our time and for our time.


Justin Kurzel’s grand, brilliant, magnificent adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is Shakespeare of our time and for our time.

  • 9.4

About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.