Fair is foul and foul is fair, and both words can be applied to the harrowing new film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Foul in that Australian director Justin Kurzel evokes the pervasive bleakness and epic tragedy of the source material in a manner that few other screen adaptations have ever managed. And fair in that the film's hypnotic aesthetic, along with the incredible work of its cast, ensures that it will be remembered as one of the most awe-inspiring movies of the year.
Fans of local cinema may remember Kurzel's name from his debut feature, Snowtown, which hit cinemas back in 2011. Based on a notorious South Australian murder case, the film's immaculate craftsmanship is matched only by its repellent content — it's the kind of movie critics appreciate and admire but find almost impossible to recommend. Either way, it could hardly have been a better audition piece for a director looking to tackle what is arguably one of Shakespeare's grimmest plays. Plenty of talented filmmakers — including Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa — have made adaptations of the Scottish play, but rarely has the dialogue sounded darker or more enthralling.
It helps that Kurzel has recruited two of the greatest actors alive in his quest to bring literature's ultimate power couple to life. Michael Fassbender is magnetic as the eponymous Scottish thane, a good man brought low by his own overleaping ambition. His whispered delivery in the film's early scenes brings the audience in on his character's moral misgivings. Yet it is his work in the second half, as Macbeth descends rapidly into cruel, paranoid madness, that will stick with viewers for days. Marion Cotillard, meanwhile, is steely-eyed and silver-tongued as Macbeth's conniving lady wife — and like Fassbender, she saves her best work for the back end. Kurzel shoots Lady Macbeth's famous "Out, damned spot!" scene in a single unbroken close-up, and it proves to be a very smart choice. Think Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables. Minus the singing.
But while Macbeth contains no shortage of great acting moments in which the cast get to bear their soul for the camera, there is nothing remotely stagey about Kurzel's adaptation. From the opening frame to the close, his stylistic fingerprints are all over this film, and the results are absolutely magnificent. The selective employment of slow motion and evocative use of colour — along with the imposing images of the Scottish landscape captured by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and the haunting score of droning strings by Kurzel's brother Jed — make this unquestionably one of the most cinematic Shakespeare adaptations ever put to screen. It's as compelling in its moments without dialogue as it is when the characters are speaking. So heavy is the atmosphere that the film feels almost like a nightmare; one in which you're slowly being smothered and from which you cannot seem to wake.
Now you may not think all this sounds like a particularly pleasant viewing experience, and to be honest you'd be right. Kurzel, to his credit as an artist, never attempts to make the film more palatable for a mainstream audience. Despite the period setting, the grizzly violence and the power plays, this is not Game of Thrones. It's a hard watch. A gruelling watch. But it's also an intensely rewarding one. All hail Macbeth.