Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Macbeth: Macawful

Macbeth (2015) • View trailer 
One star. Rated R, for strong violence and fleeting sexuality

By Derrick Bang

This is Shakespeare; I knew the guy had to die eventually.

Trouble is, even his death seemed to take forever. Like everything else in this dreadful film.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair ... except that everything about this turkey is foul, including any
sense of an actual relationship between Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his wife
(Marion Cotillard).
I’ve seen Macbeth at least a dozen times on stage, TV and the big screen, with the mad king played by the likes of Orson Welles, Jon Finch, Sean Connery (believe it or not, back in 1961) and Ian McKellen, the latter a Royal Shakespeare Company production with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth (definitely a high point, in productions of “the Scottish play”).

Goodness, I’ve even watched Sam Worthington lumber about in a contemporary update of the play, set amidst criminal gangs in Melbourne (far from a high point).

Do a title search on Macbeth at the Internet Movie Database, and you’ll come up with 95 matches, with adaptations clocking in from — among other countries — Japan, Australia, Russia and India.

Look far and wide, though, and you’ll not find a big-screen Macbeth that is worse than what director Justin Kurzel has unleashed this holiday season. Rarely has this play — or any other — been presented with such plodding, ponderous dreariness, its crackling dialog reduced to monotonous speeches mumbled by actors apparently instructed to utter every line with a complete lack of involvement.

This is Shakespeare, for goodness’ sake; impassioned monologues and overwrought performances are de rigueur. Instead, we get an entire cast that behaves like extras from a George Romero zombie movie, which is to say the slow, shambling walking dead, marked by dull, vacant expressions.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are exceptional actors; their Macbeth and Lady Macbeth should have leaped ferociously from the screen. Instead, for reasons known only to Kurzel, they hunch, cower and sulk, often standing motionless and staring into vacuous nothing, muttering their lines so softly, and with such little energy, that we often can’t even hear what they’re saying.

Which, perversely, could be a blessing. Students of Shakespeare will be appalled by the way scripters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have butchered this play, committing artistic murders far more heinous than any of Macbeth’s on-screen blood-letting. Motivation and (ir)rational thought are abandoned, with far too many key events occurring seemingly at random.

There’s no reason to discuss any of the so-called acting in this film, because such craft is entirely absent. Given the dull, washed out cinematography, along with the grime that so frequently coats the faces of all these men, it’s even difficult to distinguish one key character from another. It’s not like any of them say or do anything to make themselves identifiably different people.

Kurzel’s directorial vision throughout remains confined to static establishing shots and relentlessly tight close-ups on actors doing nothing. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is as colorless and washed-out as the performances framed in his lens. Editor Chris Dickens obviously got paid for doing nothing, because this film is utterly paceless.

Come to think of it, Kurzel may be a terrible filmmaker — his only previous feature credit being 2011’s grimly unpalatable The Snowtown Murders — but he probably deserves a Nobel Prize in physics. He has figured out how to stretch time, by making a 113-minute movie last three years (maybe four).

He has taken the “motion” out of motion pictures.

His Macbeth isn’t merely boring. It’s lifeless, vapid and interminably sluggish to a degree that defies description. Viewers who don’t fall asleep are to be congratulated; those who endure without some sort of chemical stimulant should receive a medal. Patrons fled from a recent preview screening; they were the smart ones.

I’m certain many of the hold-outs remained because they genuinely couldn’t believe that things wouldn’t eventually pick up, at the very least in the final act. Such optimists were doomed to disappointment.

The story, set in the Middle Ages, is fairly simple for a Shakespearean tragedy. Following a successful battle fought on behalf of Scottish King Duncan (David Thewlis), Macbeth and fellow soldier Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three women scavenging among the slain men. These actually are witches, not that this is made clear, and they prophesize that Macbeth will become king, while Banquo will be the father of future kings.

Back at Macbeth’s home in Inverness, the scheming Lady Macbeth greets this news with delight, as it spurs a plot to hasten the process, by having her husband kill Duncan during an upcoming visit. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to play out, but Cotillard’s behavior is worlds removed from “scheming”; she shambles about in the same stupor as everybody else in this wretched movie, acting far more like a battered wife than a master manipulator.

Ahem. Anyway...

Macbeth does the dirty deed, but is seen by the king’s son, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), who successfully flees. His departure plants the seed of paranoia in Macbeth’s vile brain; such fears sprout more vigorously when he realizes that Banquo — having been present for the prophecies — is suspicious. Worse yet, former friend and colleague Macduff (Sean Harris) has his own doubts.

Despite being crowned the new king and taking up residence at the royal seat at Dunsinane, the increasingly depraved Macbeth becomes determined to kill all of his perceived enemies and their families. Plenty of blood flows, often in the sort of artsy-fartsy slow motion that director Zack Snyder employed throughout 300 and its sequel. The demented king’s fury knows no bounds, and his wrath expands to include wives and children. (Let’s be grateful that Kurzel remains restrained with the latter.)

But Macbeth’s minions fail to kill Banquo’s young son Fleance (Lochlann Harris), who escapes into nearby Birnam Wood: a detail that further enhances the new king’s obsessions and mounting terror.

Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, has become consumed by guilt and driven mad ... not that we can tell, because Cotillard’s expressions and behavior don’t change a jot. The actress nonetheless delivers the film’s one and only heartfelt speech — credit where due — just prior to an apparently spontaneous death.

No doubt Cotillard decided that she’d had enough of this infernal mess, and that a quick death scene was the fastest way out.

Cue yet another grisly battlefield melee outside Dunsinane, where Macbeth finally meets his true destiny ... although you’ll need very sharp ears to discern the tricky manner in which our deranged king does not die “by the hand of any man born of a woman.”

As the dust settles and the survivors speechify lifelessly about nothing in particular, Kurzel (finally!) uncorks an unexpectedly powerful final scene: Young Fleance appears on the battlefield, wrenches Macbeth’s war sword from the dead king’s hands, and retreats back into the smoke from the burning Birnam Wood.

We’re left with the tantalizing thought of the second prophecy: that Banquo, death notwithstanding, is destined to be the father of future kings.

Too little, much too late: a shame that Kurzel and his inept screenwriters couldn’t have managed that level of imaginative subtlety in the rest of their misbegotten film.

Avoid. This. One. At. All. Cost.

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