There is no toil or trouble bubbling from any witch's cauldron in Justin Kurzel's
, the one with a brooding Michael Fassbender in the title role and Marion Cotillard as his tormented lady, the pair scheming to usurp the Scottish throne.
Stripped to the sinew, this Macbeth dispenses with some of the signature lines of Shakespeare's tragedy. Other times, the camera pulls away from the faces of the murderous thane and his prodding wife just as each is about to burrow deeply into the Bard's verse; the lines become voice-overs, the screen filled with images of jagged hills, stark forests, portentous sky.
Kurzel, the Australian director making only his second feature, is a restless soul. (Snowtown, his 2011 debut, was an intense true-crime tale of torture, murder, and hate.) He is keen to get on with it. And keen to try something new, even with this entrenched classic about the quest for power, and its emptiness once grasped.
To wit, the sorceresses, emerging from the mist to tell Macbeth his destiny, look more like a trio of hippie moms from a '60s commune (a young girl stands with them). The opening battle scene - Macbeth and his horde, wielding swords and daggers against an army of Norsemen allied with the traitor Macdonwald - plays like a Dark Ages 300: slo-mo spurts of blood, sweat, mud, a warrior scrum, the wild-eyed shock of war. (Fassbender proved his swordplay mettle, in fact, in 300: He was one of the bloodied Spartan soldiers of Zack Snyder's Battle of Thermopylae epic, too.)
If Macbeth comes off at times like a Classics Illustrated comic-book adaptation (there is one, from 1955), it can also be quite moving, quite troubling, haunting, even. Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene ("to bed, to bed . . . what's done cannot be undone") finds Cotillard solitary, soliloquizing in a candle-lighted chapel. Cotillard is an actress of such soulful fortitude, of precision and intuition, that every word she utters (in a language that is not her own) echoes with anguish.
Fassbender, who appears on track for a best actor Oscar nomination for Steve Jobs (another tale of unbridled ambition - of corpses, albeit figurative ones, left on the path), knots his brow in anger, his eyes darting fitfully, fearfully, as the scorpions fill his mind. His is not a deep performance, not one that leaves reverberations in its wake. But it's good enough, full of sound and fury and signifying . . . something.
Directed by Justin Kurzel. With Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis. Distributed by the Weinstein Co. Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, adult themes).