Baz Luhrmann’s raucous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet has become a cultural touchstone when it comes to adapting Shakespeare for the big screen. Heavy stylisation is the standard now, because who can listen to all those sprawling syntactically-discombobulated sentences without intense slow motion and dramatic sword fights?
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is very much a modern take on the play, employing the full range of high definition super slow motion and intense digital filters to add an otherworldy tone to the old story. But what Kurzel’s film lacks that Luhrmann’s film has in surprising abundance considering how very energetic it is, is intelligibility. Where Luhrmann’s film had the characters shouting in a fully melodramatic style, Kurzel goes more for gritty realism with the delivery of the dialogue. The result is that about 90% of the film’s dialogue is indecipherable.
The first question anyone who adapts Shakespeare for the screen must ask is whether they want to use the original dialogue or simply adapt the story to another setting. Macbeth goes the faithful route, but the actors mumble and whisper their way through dialogue which was written to be recited to large rooms. Without being able to make out entire scenes at a time this film becomes extremely difficult to engage with.
Naturally when you can’t make out a word the characters are saying it becomes difficult to empathise with them. So the tragedy at the heart of this famous tragedy is lost. Instead it becomes frustrating and quite incoherent, which makes the overblown stylistics looks hollow and forced.
As for characterisation, Kurzel put certain spins on the characters, because if you’re going to adapt a story that’s been adapted this many times you may as well. Michael Fassbender plays Macbeth a bit like Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance in The Shining; starting off a bit mad then going full on bananas by the end. Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth seems to be a character filled with regret for her husband’s actions rather than the out and out villain of the play.
These character traits are interesting, and will surely have academics putting the film on repeat. But in the great history of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth will not be remembered as a particularly standout piece.
In cinemas 02 October 2015. Click here to watch the trailer.