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‘Macbeth’ steeped in dark carnage

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Michael Fassbender plays Macbeth with a quiet intensity that elevates the production.

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Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth in director Justin Kurzel’s film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy


Rated R


Opens Friday at Kahala 8

There’s no doubled trouble in the slickly handsome new version of “Macbeth” with Michael Fassbender. The “double, double, toil and trouble” is among the play’s most memorable passages, the one with three witches, a bubbling caldron and an eye of newt. A gang of weird sisters still roams the foggy Scottish moors, speaking in riddles and giving Macbeth the evil eye. Yet the movie mutes the dark magic that swirls in the play, an alteration that itself stirs the pot, complicating the question of Macbeth’s freedom, his will and his guilt.

As with every play, the interpretation’s the thing. Director Justin Kurzel, working from a script by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie, lights a smoldering scene with a broodingly dark palette, verdant hills and vales, and the pale, beautiful face of a dead child on a funeral pyre.

Death haunts this place, and soon Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, is leading his troops to victory on the battlefield, the arena that Kurzel loves best here. Similarly to what Steven Spielberg did in “Saving Private Ryan” (and the Wachowskis did in “The Matrix”), Kurzel periodically slows down the action, allowing every drop of blood and bit of mud to linger.

The results are visually striking, even if beautifying carnage in this manner is distracting and complicated, both for what it means for the drama unfolding on screen and for the audience. The slow-motion scenes suggest that there’s a timeless aspect to this slaughter and, perhaps by extension, an inevitability to such violence. And if war is inevitable and eternal, what does this say about Macbeth? Then again, the carefully choreographed and filmed violence, with its flowing sword-clanging and blood-spurting, is kind of cool.

So, does Macbeth kill Duncan (David Thewlis) because of magic, fate or ambition? Or is Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), who bombards her husband with pushy exhortations (man up!) and seductively busy hands, to blame?

These are the questions that, like the fog that Kurzel keeps pumping into the fray, obscure the character and that only Fassbender’s exceptionally fine performance disperses. Quietly, insistently, he pulls you to him, largely with a restrained intensity that, in its closeness, creates an intimacy between you and the character, effectively turning you into another Lady Macbeth.

Kenneth Tynan once wrote that “nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth” because the character shrinks from a complex figure into a cowering thug. The exception, Tynan continued, was Laurence Olivier, who in a 1955 production “shook hands with greatness.”

With his Macbeth, Fassbender, who routinely shakes hands with greatness in films that don’t remotely do the same, produces a man whose anguish eventually becomes a powerful counterpoint to his deeds. Fassbender gives you a reason to see this “Macbeth,” although the writing isn’t bad, either.

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