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      Macbeth Review

      Macbeth poster


      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      The new "Macbeth" starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard opens with a funeral you won't find in the Shakespeare play. Director Justin Kurzel's film version imagines the Macbeths as grieving parents. (The interpretation's supported by a line of Lady Macbeth's.) We see Macbeth placing the scales on his dead son's eyes, as Fassbender's own eyes run cold. Kurzel, the Australian director who made his name on an unnerving true-crime drama called "The Snowtown Murders," shot much of "Macbeth" on the Isle of Skye in winter, off the northwest coast of Scotland. Every wind-swept exterior sequence looks genuinely bone-chilling.

      The funeral's a promising start. Then, all too soon yet all too ploddingly, the film runs cold itself.

      It's puzzling, because Kurzel and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso establish a unified, rough-hewn world for Shakespeare's soul-sick power couple, their blind ambitions and demonic influences. The play's set in the 11th century; so is Kurzel's streamlined film, though in the battle sequences the digitally manipulated, slow-motion bloodletting owes a large debt to the cinematic realm of "300." (These bits may have helped Kurzel win his forthcoming project, the big-screen version of "Assassin's Creed" starring Fassbender.)

      Partly, I think, the problem lies in Kurzel and his key performers being so determined to make the language conversational and naturalistic, they forgot to make the individual scenes move. The material's internal dynamics, before and after Macbeth commits his first murder en route to the crown, are reduced to a methodical rhythm. Fassbender, one of our most charismatic screen performers, has the voice and the presence for a memorable Macbeth. But he murmurs nearly everything in the same low, steady, dulled delivery. He becomes The Scots Whisperer. Cotillard has the regal bearing and the steely will for a first-rate Lady M, but each exchange with Fassbender is laden with pauses you could ride a horse across.

      In interior shots Kurzel and his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw often place the actors mid-frame, backed by natural light, so that we squint to read their faces. Sometimes this is visually effective; other times, merely aggravating. The mournful drone of composer Jed Kurzel's original score flattens the action rather than heightening it. For all the on-screen splurches of gore, the key banquet scene -- where Macbeth, now the big cheese, sees Banquo's ghost -- carries not an inkling of true terror. However skillful, Fassbender and Cotillard perform as if nervous about being one of those ham actors who "struts and frets his hour upon the stage." Or two hours on the screen. For now, Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" remains the reigning "Macbeth." It's also the least faithful to Shakespeare, proving that in stage-to-film adaptations, fidelity often ends up signifying nothing.

      MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and brief sexuality).

      Running time: 1:53

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