Sound and fury, signifying nothing. Those words might one day come back to haunt Australian director Justin Kurzel — in the form of a snarky review, perhaps — whose next project, after this heavily stylised and hot-blooded adaptation of Macbeth, is a blockbuster movie about a blockbuster video game: Assassin’s Creed.
There’s nothing in Kurzel’s first two film’s to suggest he’ll pander to the backrows – quite the contrary. The director’s 2011 debut Snowtown is a gut-wrenchingly realistic drama focused around Australia’s infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ case, thrillingly told and terrifically directed. And while his take on Shakespeare has issues, it’s far from a dumbed down interpretation of the text.
Putting a distinctive spin on a movie version of a franchise dominated by teen fanboys and worth billions of dollars is, of course, another matter entirely. When the hurly burly’s done the battle to retain creative vision has been lost or won.
The omens are good at the moment, with Australians recently doing a spectacular job satisfying both audiences and studio bean counters. James Wan’s Furious 7 grossed a billion dollars at the global box office faster than any movie in history and was a rambunctiously entertaining achievement – for what it’s worth, probably the best sixth sequel of all time. And George Miller flummoxed audiences in the best possible way in his sensationally visceral Mad Max: Fury Road.
Kurzel is great talent, and his take on one of the Bard’s seminal texts nothing if not bold. Perhaps fearless, or even reckless; his actors appear to have been granted carte blanche to do as they please with accents and enunciation.
This is the film’s major problem. The text is challenging enough without performers mumbling their dialogue or, in the case of Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, coming up with an odd verbal flavour: Scotland by way of France. The production values are so impressive they practically smack you across the face, but you’ll need to pay close attention to the dialogue.
Michael Fassbender brings heft to the titular role as the inspiring warrior brought down by ambition, lust for power and the occasional hallucination. Marion Cotillard is a headstrong Lady Macbeth – fine, but her accent is distracting.
The battle scenes (mostly bookend scenes) are bold and brutal. The hues and colour grade become increasing tomato-flavoured towards the end, from orange to red to violet, as if the film is moving closer and closer to the sun. Or perhaps more fittingly, given the grim fate that befalls the principal characters, closer to hell.
Cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (who shot Animal Kingdom, True Detective and Top of the Lake), editing by Oscar-winner Chris Dickens (Slumdog Millionaire, Shaun of the Dead) and music by the director’s brother Jed (who scored Snowtown and The Babadook) are major influencers in a bang-up suite of production values.
At times Kurzel’s limited budget can be noticed; thus Macbeth’s “castle” is essentially a collection of tents. In a strictly tonal sense the film has more discipline than previous incarnations of Macbeth – including Roman Polanski’s 1971 version and fellow Australian director Geoffrey Wright’s batty 2006 modernisation, in which the witches were schoolgirls.
More work with the actors in freeing up the dialogue and making it accessible could have done the film wonders. Joss Whedon recently demonstrated, in his fine 2012 version of Much Ado About Nothing (another modernisation) that this can be achieved without simplifying the source material.
Still, Kurzel’s film has grunt. Sound and fury, signifying plenty.