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Striking Visual Style Elevates the Operatic Scale of Macbeth

The Scottish play gets a truly cinematic treatment.
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With its gorgeously composed shots, the melodic flow of its language, and a story so familiar that it required only half the usual focus to follow, I lost myself in the midst of director Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I found I wasn’t bothering to comprehend the more obscure phrases of 17th-century dialogue and was instead surrendering myself to the grand emotionality of each scene, just as I might watch an opera in a foreign tongue.

Kurzel succeeds in transforming the stage play into a cinematic experience. In an early sequence, he cuts moments of quiet within the tumult of two armies meeting in battle while a soliloquy is heard in voiceover. The effect is like something out of a Terrence Malick film, heightening the philosophical import of each line of dialogue.

And, as can happen with Malick’s work, the effect verges on being overdone. Still, this Macbeth is a visual delight, and its color palette becomes another character in the story. The greens, grays, and browns of the Scottish landscape give way to a screen filled with the oranges and reds of fire and blood. It’s an overt symbol of the downfall of Macbeth and the corruption of his soul, a not-at-all subtle descent into hell.

Though not as gory as Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, Kurzel doesn’t shy away from the violence of the story. When the ambitious Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) — spurred on by the prophetic promises of three witches and the urging of his even more ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard) — slays King Duncan (David Thewlis), the camera doesn’t shy away from the bloody results. The acquisition of power in this telling is literally a dirty business.

Nor is the struggle over even when Macbeth’s tale reaches its tragic end. The film’s beautifully conceived final shots underline that his is but one chapter in an everlasting fight full of sound and fury.

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