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D: Justin Kurzel / 113m

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki

With Scotland ruled by King Duncan (Thewlis), his throne comes under threat from a Scottish lord seeking to overthrow him. Duncan’s depleted army is led by Macbeth (Fassbender), the Thane of Glamis, and thanks to his savagery and skill on the battlefield, Duncan’s forces win the fight and rout the opposition. On the fringes of the battle, Macbeth sees three women who stand watching him. When he approaches them, along with his trusted servant Banquo (Considine), they prophesy his rise to become Thane of Cawdor as well as Glamis, and his future role as King. They also tell Banquo that his offspring will provide a line of kings to come.

Soon after, Macbeth receives word that Duncan has awarded him the title of Thane of Cawdor (as predicted), and that the King wishes to spend the night at Macbeth’s home. News sent by Macbeth to his wife (Cotillard) of the day’s strange events prompts her to plot Duncan’s death so that her husband can ascend to the throne, though Macbeth is in need of her persuasion to even consider the idea. But when Duncan proclaims his successor will be Malcolm (Reynor), Macbeth sees no option but to go ahead with his wife’s plan. He kills Duncan, but Malcolm flees for his life, allowing Macbeth to blame him for Duncan’s death.

Macbeth is crowned king but he frets over the prophecy’s assertion that Banquo is the head of a line of future kings. Unwilling to see his reign usurped by Banquo’s inheritors, he charges two men to kill him and his son. Banquo is killed but his son escapes. At a feast later that night, Macbeth sees the murdered Banquo amongst the guests, and becomes maddened by the sight of him. Lady Macbeth does her best to calm him, but the actions of Macduff (Harris), who leaves in disgust at the new king’s erratic behaviour, lead Macbeth to have his family – his wife (Debicki) and three children – apprehended and put to death. Macduff has already left for England, and when he hears of his family’s fate, determines to have his revenge on Macbeth, and joins the army Malcolm has assembled to take back the crown. But while they plan their assault, Macbeth relies on his belief that “no man of woman born” can ever harm him, and is invincible. Lady Macbeth, though, seeing how much her husband’s mind has deteriorated begins to see that their futures have become heavily fore-shortened.

Macbeth - scene

In a year that has seen any number of disappointing big-budget, action-stuffed, plot-lite, spectacle-driven adventure movies, it’s a pleasure to finally watch a movie that is the whole package – the real deal, if you like – and doesn’t pander in any way to any one particular audience demographic; in short, Macbeth is simply stunning. Thanks to a concise, yet exacting adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie, and Justin Kurzel’s robust, instinctive direction, this is a movie that sizzles with energy and fire and passion, and grips from its opening, dreamlike battle, shot and edited to perfection as Macbeth becomes aware of the three witches watching from the battle’s edge and the fighting rages around him. It’s a virtuoso sequence, visually arresting and exotically violent, and gives the audience a firm idea of the approach that Kurzel is taking with the material.

Indelible image follows indelible image as the wilds of Scotland are photographed to highlight both their inherent beauty and the eeriness that can be sensed within them, while the interiors, hemming in the passions that motivate Macbeth and his manipulative wife, act as a melting pot for the murderous intentions and descent into madness that erodes the new king’s grip on his throne. Rarely has a movie used its locations to such striking effect, with mist-shrouded hills and candle-strewn rooms becoming just as fervid and foreboding as each other. Kurzel’s eye for a powerful, arresting image is maintained throughout, whether it’s a church emerging from out of the highland mist, or the overhead shot of the King’s throne (almost lost in the emptiness of the great hall it resides in). Kurzel’s innovative style reaches its zenith in the way he presents the moment when “Birnam Wood doth come to Dunsinane”, a blazing wall of flame that reflects the ferocity of the attack and the intensity of Macduff’s thirst for revenge.

But while the movie is often a thing of beauty (and cruelly so), it’s the depth and richness of the performances that stands out most. Fassbender is a tightly coiled Macbeth, his conscience unravelling with ever increasing speed as his attempts to thwart the prophecy drive him to ever more desperate measures. Fassbender plays him at first as a reluctant conspirator, reliant on his wife to persuade him that killing Duncan is the “right” thing to do, but once he becomes King his sense of regal propriety gives way to paranoia and madness and prideful arrogance. These are aspects of Macbeth’s character that could easily be overplayed by the wrong actor but Fassbender is more than up to the challenge; when he tells Lady Macbeth his mind is full of scorpions, the smile he offers her is chilling in its murderous intent, and all the more effective for being fleeting and unexpected.

Matching Fassbender for intensity and the intelligence of their portrayal is Cotillard. The French actress is superb here, her cold-hearted determination and rejection of moral rectitude as unnerving as it is coolly self-justified. The scene where she realises she’s lost control of Macbeth and can do nothing to prevent his madness consuming him (and her) is magnificently handled, the character’s sudden awareness that everything is about to crumble around her, and that she’s misjudged her husband’s actions, is affecting and credibly realised. And later, Cotillard provides what is perhaps the movie’s best scene, as she delivers the “Out, damned spot” soliloquy with such an emotional wallop that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch (it’s also possibly the best single scene in any movie this year).

Macbeth - scene2

Of the rest of the cast, Considine is quietly commanding as Banquo, his taciturn visage used to best effect when placed among the unsuspecting guests at the feast, and Harris’s Macduff swirls with uncontrolled hostility, as maddened in his own way as Macbeth. Thewlis is an avuncular Duncan, Debicki and Reynor minor presences due to the adaptation’s focus on the key characters, and there are smaller roles for the likes of Maurice Roëves and David Hayman. The violence is stylised, though not as bloody as you might expect, and the make up team have done a great job adding various scars and cuts where needed (and excel themselves with Macduff’s broken nose). The costumes are functional rather than ornate – though Duncan sports what looks like a scarf made by a favoured child – and it’s photographed with rigorous style and impressive use of filters by Adam Arkapaw, Kurzel’s cinematographer on Snowtown (2011). There’s also a terrifically mournful, plaintive score supplied by Jed Kurzel that acts as a character in its own right, and underscores the tragedy of events with such conviction that it’s ultimately haunting.

Rating: 9/10 – easily the best Shakespeare adaptation in a very long time, Macbeth is a triumph of casting, directing, scripting, filming, and every other aspect required to make this one of the films of the year; an oft-told tale given a new lease of life through its presentation of the title character enduring a semi-lucid fever dream of grandeur, madness and inevitable tragedy, this is a tour-de-force of modern movie making and not to be missed.