Mud, marble and mumbling: 'Macbeth' is atmospheric, abridged and often aimless.
DAMNED SPOT: Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) and her king, (Michael Fassbender), in the latest, psychedelic adaptation of the Scottish tragedy.

A king-pleaser as much as he was a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare tailored his Scottish tragedy to the new King James: Macbeth was short, violent and full of witches, since His Majesty had a lively interest in sorcery.

Director Justin Kurzel's new film version of Macbeth has, in the form of Michael Fassbender, a solemn, dogged soldier with a thousand-yard stare, who climbs his way to the top through murder. But this Australian director (Snowtown) doesn't have a new take on the tragedy—in this view, royalty means nothing except bigger halls to be miserable in and more children to be slaughtered. The beauty of the highlands and the frosty mountains standing sentinel over them are magnificently depressing; the fog overshadows bloody, mud-dwelling humanity. But ordinarily, even in a production that gives darkness and doubt their weight, you can make a contrast between the depths of human evil and the height of the dialogue. Unlike your common regicide, Macbeth knows he is a puppet, a shadow musing at the passing of useless days ("Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"); the words, at least, encompass the suffering.

Kurzel switches from the grisly slo-mo battlefields and wind-rattled huts to huge interiors in Ely Cathedral and Bamburgh Castle—the latter being where Roman Polanski shot his similarly realistic Macbeth in the 1970s. It's hard to see how Kurzel's two kingdoms co-exist: one all mud, the other all marble.

Polanski went to Goya with his witches, making them bare-breasted hags; Kurzel gives them the look of farmers sadly contemplating a potato blight. For whatever reason, the weird sisters here get no pleasure from their witchery. Mourning, marked with ritual scars, they gaze solemnly at human strivings; no "double, double, toil and bubble" incantations, or threats of deadly mischief.

Macbeth learns to beware his nemesis Macduff because of an apparition: the ghosts of the dead muttering the warning "Beware Macduff" as they walk by their still-living comrade. The tone of these walking dead isn't much different than the murmuring of the shell-shocked Scots lords and men. Kurzel, co-credited with script along with two other writers, is terrified of a declamatory acting style. One high-spirited moment—David Thewlis' appealing King Duncan investing his son as a prince—is broken into two camera angles so there won't be any undue exuberance at the boy receiving his new rank.

The actors nearly whisper their lines, to each other, or to themselves. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) talks into the nape of her husband's neck, sealing their contract to murder with an act of sex; she's seen praying in a chapel, entreating the spirits to make her a human vessel of poison. Does she think God will help her? I've seen some serious Lady Macbeths, from Judi Dench to Dame Judith Anderson. Cotillard isn't in the league of her predecessors, but her accent is steady. This little, scrappy queen has a wanton side—she knows how to use her body to keep her husband focused. But as soon as Macbeth is crowned, looking sated and a little poisoned himself, he's out of her control. The movie begins with her burying her son. The essence to this ambitious lady is disappointed motherhood. It's not an interpretation that does one of literature's great villainesses a service.

Jed Kurzel, the director's brother, scored The Babadook. In that horror movie, a drone of fear was justified. Kurzel's soundtrack here is a keening of Scandinavian strings that almost never ceases lowing—when King Duncan's corpse is discovered, the groaning strings alternate with a sonic wobble that sounds like the siren on a British ambulance. This audio hurly-burly camouflages what remains of the severely cut dialogue.

Fortunately, it ceases during the firestorm at the end, after the King torches Birnam Wood to protect himself from the prophecy of his downfall. This flaming end was inspiration: Macbeth seems to be fighting for his crown on the plains of Hell. What gets this director really ardent is the mayhem, the killings in the forest, and the close-quarters stabbing scenes, instead of the magnificent language that evens the estates of commoners and kings.

R; 113 Mins.
Camera 7, Campbell

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