Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

Australian filmmaker Justin Kerzel’s (Snowtown) MACBETH opens with the funeral of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s child. It’s common for writers to add scenes to Shakespeare that help render their telling unique and develop strands of his work that have yet to be explored.

The decision to include this is a bold move and suggests a particular subtext to the interpretation that will follow. That it never is, through dialogue or performance, is emblematic of an interpretation lacking in direction and depth.

The filmmaker’s next decision is equally disappointing, as we are given the story’s exposition three times in succession—through text and visuals (both unnecessary), and dialogue (as originally written). Perhaps the filmmakers thought adding these two extra pieces of exposition would help a younger audience not familiar with Shakespeare’s original work understand its context, or, maybe they’re simply working in a particularly cynical style of modern filmmaking that requires telling and showing.

The last Hollywood retelling of Macbeth was Roman Polanski’s in 1971. Though the work has been adapted into other works (Men of Respect), the Macbeth of 2015 is one that remains (largely) true to the original work’s language and setting.

Kurzel’s visual idea for Macbeth is unsurprising and born of today’s political climate—a warrior, born in an age of endless war, knowing nothing but violence—and his visuals evoke a bloody, sometimes colourless Hell that Macbeth lives in. The characters are forged as shadows against a blood-red sky but Kurzel never expands upon this imagery. The camera rarely moves decisively or adds great dimension to the screen. This is a cinematic retelling of Macbeth without any cinema.

The film is grounded in realism as the power of Shakespeare’s dramatic suggestion is made literal. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies are only delivered in the context of real speech. The dark magic of the floating dagger now sits plainly in the hands of an apparition.

As directed by Kurzel, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth work hard for a realistic performance but are never directed to display or elude to greater character mysteries or possibilities. The realism of the performances also minimises the impact of the language as the readings become dull and monotone.

I understand why Macbeth should exist for a modern audience—an audience that is wearied by blood-thirst and endless government politicking—but it’s not clear why Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth exists.

The personal nature of Polanski’s take on Macbeth and his understanding of the cinema only underlines his sense of loss and his anger at the violence of the world making the experience far more rewarding.

Kurzel’s MACBETH is mere storytelling and nothing more. His film is due for release on October 1.