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Macbeth (2015)

Starz / Anchor Bay // R // March 8, 2016
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 4, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Traditionally, directors who take on one of Shakespeare's works for the big screen aim to leave a lasting mark with their approach, whether it's adhering to the complexities of the original text or pushing the boundaries with the setting, performances, or imagery. Justin Kurzel strives to do a bit of both in the latest adaptation of Macbeth, building atop the classical foundation of the bard's play with a gorgeous perspective on the landscape and predominately restrained delivery of the poetic dialogue. Driven by a slow-simmering performance from Michael Fassbender, this take on the maddened king revolves around the powerful drama present within the bard's tale of political scheming and prophecy across the moors of Scotland, concerned more with conveying a raw, instinctive mood than projecting the facets of the iconic play in a theatrical manner. Kurzel engages the senses and the deep emotions of Shakespeare's work in a bold and stirring manifestation, limited only by that cautiousness in subduing the literary tempo.

Shortly after a stirring funeral sequence, the tragedy of Macbeth descends into its familiar melancholy demeanor with a fierce battle amid civil war, resulting in mass casualties that have a profound effect on the Scottish general of the play's title. As the dust settles, Macbeth (Fassbender) is approached by a small group of witches who proclaim him to be a Thane of Cowan and the future king of the land, suggesting a prophecy of his climb up the political ladder. Shortly thereafter, he learns of circumstances that have, in fact, placed him into the position of a thane, sparking thoughts about whether the rest of the prophecy -- whether he's destined to be king -- will also come to fruition. Propelled by his wife, the Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), to continue pursuing the opportunity afforded to him, Macbeth surrenders to his greed and carves his own path to the place of a king, leaving one to ponder the veracity of the witches' declaration and whether the mad king actually engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy ... and how long his reign will last.

If pure imagery was all that mattered in a Shakespearean cinematic adaptation, then this Macbeth would likely dethrone most that came before it. Sparked to life with a beautiful funeral pyre and carried over into a blend of slow-motion photography and chaotic editing upon the battlefield, Kurzel's visual panache hits upon a violent, grimy viewpoint that bolsters the mythical atmosphere surrounding the tragic play. Sprawling shots of the misty, mountainous landscape highlight the desolation of the Scottish moors, not unlike the ways that Roman Polanski's version of the story did so, further accentuated by the unsettling bagpipe-infused music that grows with intensity alongside Macbeth's greed. The scenes are staged faultlessly, from the haunting presence of the witches to the despondent conversation between the Macbeths following their prophecy, using the eerie aesthetics to express the play's intended moods throughout: flickers of dark ambition, growing paranoia, and, of course, the claustrophobia of madness.

But Shakespeare's all about the dialogue, both its boisterous presence within individual sequences and the gradual development of themes throughout, and this adaptation of Macbeth handles the poetic wordage almost like an mandatory obstacle instead of something to relish. Director Kurzel treats the language like traditional conversational speak with its volume range and enunciation, a creative choice that loses some potency through its low-key tempo and erratic accents. The craftsmanship is so polished and evocative, however, that the scenes themselves express their raw purposes and emotions without having to comprehend the bulk of what's actually being said, though the delightful bits of symbolism crafted by Shakespeare -- of guilt, of mortality, and of the color red itself -- are reduced to brief, sensory glimpses and muttered lines without enough impact to course deeper. These visuals speak louder than the bard's text, ending up as a double-edged testament to Kurzel's talent.

Together with moody production design and costume work that cloaks the actors in the right temperaments, the performances in this Macbeth fully comprehend the path that Kurzel undertakes in getting the mad king and his bride to the throne, embracing their cunning and weather-beaten facets. Michael Fassbender brings a distinctively ominous presence to Macbeth, enriching the attitude of his conversations with his signature brand of intensity and fluctuating sanity. Instead of moving from stable to unstable, his Macbeth evolves from a manageable gloom to a thunderstorm of lunacy, elevated by the unique blend of suppressed pain and distress that the actor brought to his previous roles in Shame and Jane Eyre. The wicked persuasion of Lady Macbeth takes on a unique presence within Marion Cotillard's wistful poise, shining a light on her shrewd manipulation as she tries to shape and bridle her off-the-rails husband. Their chemistry turns from impassioned to tumultuous with each evolution of their reign, a reflection of both the impact of their covetous pursuits and the lingering despair of their lives beforehand.

That lack of theatricality influencing the earlier parts of Macbeth fades away in the later, more volatile acts of Kurzel's adaptation, a natural response to the amplified drama surrounding the backstabbing and psychosis in Shakespeare's play. Its tragic conflagration of witchcraft, rebellion, and comeuppance stokes the dialogue into becoming bolder and more fanatical, escalating alongside the gradually haunting depiction of Macbeth's deteriorating mental state -- and, by association, Fassbender's unyielding devotion to his descent. What ensues is a rather masterful sensory climax, reminiscent of the primal ferocity of Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising and the spirited tonality of Braveheart, possessing the right kind of vigor and dramatic clarity that would've taken this into the upper echelon of big-screen Macbeth depictions had it been more prevalent earlier on. Kurzel manages to leave a mark with his rendition, but it's hard not to wish that the mark was more substantive than stylistic.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Macbeth charges onto Blu-ray from Anchor Bay in a steadfast 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer. In general, this is a rather dim film, filled with overcast expanses of the Scottish countryside and light flickers of candles illuminating chambers, posing a challenge to the HD treatment that it engages with gusto. Some black levels appear bluish and light in tint, but most provide ample assistant to the image's depth and stark contrast, notably when on the battlefield. The palette is, for the most part, incredible subtle: dark inky blues of facepaint, a baby blue makeup streak across Lady Macbeth's eyes, and soft tans and browns in the chambers are subdued yet beautifully presented. Flesh tones are similarly handled, generally pale yet strong enough to be fitting in the varied lighting situations, with a few instances of impressive natural warmth. Detail clarity also fluctuates between scenes, but everything typically looks incredibly sharp, especially garments in brightly-lit interior sequences. Some light banding does appear at points, but only distracts in a scene or two. Positive greatly outweigh the niggling concerns in what's ultimately a stark, precise high-definition presentation.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio treatment for Macbeth enthusiastically spreads to all the channels, but most of the actual activity sticks to the front of the surround stage, with the music occupying the bulk of the rear-end potency. Some atmospheric touches out in the exterior sequences and in echoic halls sneak to the back, but it's the rhythmic, intense music that occupies that area, substantial and satisfying throughout. The clanking and slicing of blades offer suitably metallic and visceral sonic effects, as does the rumble of fire, all of which spreads nicely across the front-end separation. Verbal delivery is decent in louder sequences, reducing distortion and holding onto the depth of Michael Fassbender's vocals, but other points slightly dip in the clarity department, resulting in mumbling dialogue that's difficult to discern with a lack of mid-range heft. By and large, everything in Macbeth sounds solid. English and Spanish subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Extras are limited to two: a fairly generic Making of Macbeth (7:55, 16x9 HD) featurette, which features very brief interview bits with director Justic Kurzel, Michael Fassbender, and Marion Cotillard as they discuss the adaptation, the pathos of their characters, and the individual performances; and a lengthy Q&A with Michael Fassbender (20:12, 16x9 HD) that was recorded in October of 2015, where he touches upon the "thousand different ways" he could do scenes differently and the grim tone of the war-torn material. A Digital Copy has also been included.

Final Thoughts:

Had Justin Kurzen's Macbeth sustained the same theatrical enthusiasm that it displays in its glorious climax, it'd fit faultlessly alongside the likes of Roman Polanski's rendition and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood in the annals of Shakespearean play adaptations. A fierce visual perspective, robust performances, and a deft grasp on the dramatic intentions of every step leading to Macbeth's reign over Scotland make for an extremely solid take on the material. That said, the sober and informal tenor of the dialogue early on does weigh down Kurzel's otherwise vivid craftsmanship, to a notable degree, thus forcing the scenes to rely on their inherent physical and aesthetic drama for impact. Sometimes it works, and other times it doesn't, but it's a striking depiction nonetheless. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray looks and sounds quite good, and comes with a nice pair of supplements heavy with Fassbender's participation. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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