Sunday, October 4, 2015

Macbeth: A Kurzel

There ought to be a word for something that's almost a masterpiece, but infuriates you because it blows the opportunity to be one. Whatever that word is, it describes the big, impossible-to-ignore new adaptation of Macbeth now playing in the multiplex near you. Let's call it a Kurzel.

Justin Kurzel, the director, makes his way to about the 20 yard line, but fails, maddeningly, to score. He ruins his own breakthrough moment. But that shouldn't keep you from lining up for tickets.

The first half of the film is nothing short of brilliant: visually breathtaking, cinematically innovative, and distinguished by astonishing performances from the two leads, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Fassbender's Macbeth, a victim of  post-traumatic stress disorder, is a splendid  achievement. The actor gives a quiet, tortured, driven performance rooted in the terrifying and impossible decisions awaiting warriors during and after wartime, and he makes this scrupulously accurate period film relevant to the early twenty-first century. Yes. Nominate him for an Oscar.

Cotillard deserves an Oscar nomination, too, for breathing new life into a classic role that might have seemed, before the lights went down, to have defied any successful reinterpretation. You have not seen or imagined this Lady Macbeth. From certain angles, this is now her story, and as Safie Maken Finlay pointed out to me, it's now, thanks largely to Cotillard, a piece about grief. 

So far, so masterful. Trouble is, the director forgot to hit the gas pedal towards the end. Let's be blunt. The thing is just too damn long in the windup. That's an inexcusable rookie mistake when you're dealing with a play structured to be played at a rapid pace, especially in the fifth act.

Kurzel starts out with royal ambitions and matching confidence. He may have meant to make this Macbeth an epic experience, and it is, for the first hour and 10 minutes or so. But in the end he falls in love with his own images, betrayed by a leaden soundtrack he appears to consider hypnotic, and by a pacing strategy that will literally put audiences to sleep in the final third of the film. 

That's a shame, because there is extraordinary work on display here, not the least of which is an intriguing, bare-bones screenplay that probably would have worked all the way through if only the director had the courage to edit his own work. He doesn't.

It's only in the second half, when Kurzel neglects that responsibility, that the piece starts to turn against him ... and he begins to resemble a usurper.