When the list of nominees for the 2015 Cannes Film Festival came out, I was as excited for Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth as I was for Mark Osborne’s Le Petit Prince. Having closely watched both Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and the modernized 2010 British television adaptation, you’d think I’d be tired of the play by now, but Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy once again proves itself a whirlwind of a masterpiece regardless of how it’s delivered.
If I had to describe the film in one word it would be “desolate.” The film begins in the silence of a haunting funeral, and while a battle cry eventually breaks the startling quiet, the monotony is never quite shaken off. For most of the movie, lines are murmured under breaths, sound effects are scarce and background music far in between, and the end result produces scenes eerily reminiscent of the earliest days of Soviet Montage. With scenes flashing by — shots of the three witches, brief flashes of the apparitions — without a single note or word in the background, Macbeth is almost suffocating in its dark and dismal emptiness as the strange sombre mood is maintained to the very end.
Director Justin Kurzel, however, uses the monotony in the first half to his advantage. As with the battle cry shattering the silence in the film’s first act, this pattern continues in its most significant scenes. A personal favourite is the subdued music that underlines Macbeth’s soliloquy as he walks, dagger in hand, to King Duncan’s room — music that escalates to a discordant peak as the stabbing scene plays out, effectively silencing the actors and drowning out the sounds of the struggle. By the end of the scene, the music fades, the film plunges back into its unsettling silence, and Macbeth’s bloody hands and King Duncan’s dead body soundlessly dominate the screen. The dissonance of quiet and sound reappears in the second half, when the loud cries of “Hail Macbeth!” are juxtaposed with the silence in between each cry. The startling juxtaposition frames the movie in a psychological context I haven’t seen in another adaptation, with Macbeth’s rapidly loosening grasp on reality spiralling blatantly out of his control with each sudden burst of sound in what is otherwise a silent scene. This time, it is not Macbeth unleashing the sounds of fury, and instead he is the one left in a suffocating, artificial silence.
With Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy all having previously tackled the controversial role of the thane-turned-king, Michael Fassbender is the last of the X-Men Professor X and Magneto quartet to take his turn at Macbeth. Fassbender’s Macbeth is fierce and savage, more unhinged than Patrick Stewart’s war period Macbeth and devoid of Jon Finch’s complex vulnerability in the 1971 film. This Macbeth is beast-like even in the deafening silence. By the last act, however, he is despaired and half-gone, his furious soliloquies that are usually spoken in rising volume are instead delivered barely above a whisper. The end product is mystifying, as rare as it is to see a Macbeth whose madness was not depicted to equal rabid screaming, and with this, Fassbender makes the role his and his alone. Alongside him is French actress Marion Cotillard, whose own Lady Macbeth is quiet but terrifying. She plays the role with a subdued, tender weariness, and her exhausted delivery seals the fatigued atmosphere of the film.
What this version appears to lack in consistent cacophony, it nevertheless made up for with its diegetic elements. Scenes alternate between high contrast and low contrast, and the film does not hold back in the required depiction of brutality. Kurzel’s Macbeth is not hesitant with its visual design and symbolism is laid on thick. It plays with symbolic colours, from the dark blacks and browns of Macbeth’s scenes to the blood red saturation of the finale that ultimately defined the film for me. Death hangs above the narrative constantly, setting up for the intended catharsis Macbeth’s death is meant to trigger. As the film reaches its end, the music rises, and the colours become increasingly saturated, until the dark red credits start rolling on screen.
For all that the movie was remotely and desolately silent, it kept me on edge. I was always leaning in to see more and hear more, and with that in mind, I’d like to say Kurzel’s Macbeth delivered more than it disappointed. “It is a tale told by an idiot,” goes one of the most famous lines in the play, despairingly whispered in this one, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” What this adaptation of Macbeth appeared to lack in sound, it made up for in silent fury, resulting in a version that may be a walking shadow of the story, but one that definitely does not signify nothing.