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Movie Review: 'Macbeth'

Macbeth is a twisted, brooding mess.

Review by Matt Cummings

Shakespeare reboots - that's a hard one to swallow these days - are usually met with a whipsaw of critical opinion. You either love Shakespeare remakes or you hate them. The problem has always been a simple one: bringing the material into current times without defeating the characters or brilliance of Shakespeare's works. Unfortunately, Michael Fassbender's Macbeth is hard to hear, nearly impossible at points to figure out, and places too much emphasis on style over substance.

Although the warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) savagely defeats an army for King Duncan (David Thewlis), Macbeth is a shattered man, having recently buried his young son high in what appears to be the Scottish mountains. When Duncan 'rewards' his efforts by granting his son the keys to the castle, Macbeth and his Lady (Marion Cottliard) plan for Duncan's death and their ascension. As the cycle of terror and murder disrupts Macbeth's mind and his new kingdom, dark forces fortell of his fall, while an epic battle is joined by both murderer and victim.

DIrector Justin Kurzel throws some of the best action sequences we've ever seen in a Shakespeare film into the mix, producing a gritty, raw, nearly nerve-shattering experience. The mud and gunk in people's faces, the harsh lifestyle of Macbeth and his people at the beginning of the film give things a realistic anchor. But what drives Macbeth aground early on is the nearly imperceptible dialogue by Fassbender and several of the actors. The key to a well-made Shakepeare is bringing his prose into the current time period. Honestly, we need visual markers for a language that feels as foreign as any you cannot speak: very little of that is here, and we're left to wonder what Macbeth or Duncan has said in a scene when no action actually happens. Are they saying something meaningful, or wondering what they will order for dinner? That makes for a serious problem, especially when amazing (and sometimes disturbing) visuals is all you get.

Soon, Macbeth's striking imagery fades into "What is supposed to be happening here?", something which caused a not surprising exodus of audience members from our screening. When people leave a free film, you know something is wrong. There's a color scheme here of blacks, browns, ash, and charcoal, pushing the actor's eyes nearly out of their skulls while they remark about murder, fortune, and destiny. It's also not a complete production, as Kurzel has chosen to eliminate some dialogue and add in an opening scene not in the play. That won't sit with many who expect Macbeth to do more with the same source material. But the lack of any dialogue in the first 5 minutes is nothing if not unique.

What Kurzel does get right is the scheming of this First Family. Macbeth and wife weren't the original Underwoods, but they'll make you think they at least edited the book on it. Kurzel also succeeds in casting the right leads, wonderfully bringing Fassbender and Cottliard together. Too bad you can't hear them half the time, even though each emotes as much as they actually speak. Fassbender brings the mentally unbalanced Macbeth into the 21st Century, painting a figure who is both overly sure of himself and yet worried about everyone's perceived treason against him. Cottliard's deep eyes bring a potentially powerful presence to the screen, demonstrating more often than not that she's the one keeping her husband from crossing the line. And when he does - in a scene that's perhaps the most riveting here - she knows his reign is over.

And yet, Macbeth struggles to hold our interest. It's no spoiler who dies here, but when Lady Macbeth cashes her final check, we're not sure how she got that way. She's at a church one minute and dead the next. And of course the three women aren't too far behind, but we're no closer to understanding what powers they bring with them. The same happens with the Duncan and the less-than-obvious reasons why the Macbeths go all MI6 on him. These are the visual markers that Macbeth so desperately needed, and their exclusion ruins what could have been the best interpretation in years.

In the end, Macbeth is an exercise in tedium. It's hard to hear and difficult to follow otherwise, even though its two leads perform admirably. It might have received a 10-minute standing ovation at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, btu that doesn't mean audiences outside of those snobs will appreciate. It's one of the greatest misuses of talent in 2015.

Macbeth is rated R for strong violence and brief sexuality and has a runtime of 113 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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