Tag Archives: Cinema

Film Review: Arrival

Arrival

Many of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have been about life beyond the stars and since the first space expeditions of the mid-twentieth century popular culture has continually celebrated ideas of space travel, whether larking through time and space with Dr Who or fighting the forces of good and evil in Star Wars. Yet while we may think that these are all about our desire to encounter alien life, space films are actually all about humanity. Wondering what’s out there focuses our fears of loneliness and isolation while imagined encounters with other beings helps to clarify what it means to be human.

Nowhere is this more true than the latest space blockbuster, Arrival, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival and considers how the use of language and science contributes to our way of interpreting the world. Now a film about linguistics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Arrival neatly integrates existential chat about the meaning and expression of life with the very human story of two academics bringing a restraining hand to the world’s trigger-happy military leaders.

In Denis Villeneuve’s film 12 mysterious spaceships arrive one day at seemingly random locations across the world. These tall cylindrical objects imply a mass alien invasion and a threat to the population of the world’s largest countries. Each contains two enormous squid-like aliens who have a message for the earth, yet, in order to understand their demands, scientists in each country must learn to interpret their language, and for that America, at least, calls on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a leading academic linguist who must work with mathematician Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to develop a relationship with their two invaders in order to decode their purpose and save the world.

The most notable thing about Arrival is seeing not just a female lead, who takes precedence over the numerous male military figures and experts, but one who is both intelligent and entirely credible – nicely written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story. Adams plays Louise as a normal woman, albeit one who appears to be suffering from some kind of painful memory intrusion, who is excellent at her job, authoritative in her advice, increasingly brave and always appropriately dressed for her life. Thankfully, as is the wont of many of these kinds of film,  we don’t see her tottering around in tight skirts and high heels, but she looks and feels the part in comfortable combat trousers and checked shirts, minimal make-up and tied back hair – in short a breath of much needed air in the presentation of women in action films.

Louise is there and respected entirely for the professional experience she brings to the team and when her theories prove sound again and again, the surrounding men, for the most part, accept her superior knowledge and do as she asks. Now none of this is shoe-horned in, and it’s not a film specifically designed to present a female lead in this light – the movie is telling a reasonably straight-forward story of an alien landing and the subsequent interaction – but in plethora of Hollywood films, Louise stands out as one of the very few realistic and thoughtfully created characters whose gender is entirely irrelevant to her ability to do her job as well as anyone else in the room.

And all of this is in no small way down to Adams’s interpretation of the character, and, given she largely carries the film, brings a sensitivity to the role that adds considerably to the audience’s engagement. We see things from her perspective so from the early confusion created at the university to the slow process of gaining the alien’s trust and gently probing their understanding and use of language, we experience her wonder, frustration and sense of achievement as time passes.

By contrast Jeremy Renner has very little to do as the military mathematician side-kick and his character is rather less well fleshed out. Naturally he bumbles around at first emitting masculine certainty about the importance of science but as time and experience with the aliens begins to prove, Banks’s way is the right one, Donnelly softens considerably towards her. Renner does what he does well and as the relationship between the leads becomes increasingly involved you begin to root for their success, but other than a providing a contrast to Louise’s easier style, the role is a reasonably thankless one.

Similarly Forest Whitaker and the rest of the military crowd are expectedly bolshie and self-important. The contrast between the force of military might and insistence that the aliens must only have dastardly intent, with Louise’s softly-softly approach is well drawn, but as ever in these films the homogeneity of military force feels as faceless and instant as usual. This is equally played out across the world as the affected nations initially share data via video conference but soon begin to fracture as their own scientists make discoveries that scare them into potentially dangerous action. How this evolves is one of the key messages of the film and again reiterates the central importance of Louise’s approach in resolving the confusion presented by the random appearance of alien craft.

Villeneuve’s direction is most valuable and subtle in the encounters between the humans and the aliens, which takes place within their ship, separated (or protected) by an impenetrable barrier that keeps them for doing each other harm. These become surprisingly affecting moments as Louise and Ian’s initial fear of the alien form becomes a more scientific fascination with unearthing the root of their language and developing an unexpected bond with them.

Arguably they cut too frequently and too sharply between these interactions and life back at base, so the prolonged contact with the visitors is sacrificed to a need to show the rapid passing of time, but Marc Reichel’s special effects are incredibly atmospheric. The physical shape of the aliens in their form of part-squid part-tree-trunk with long spindly roots will invariably disappoint some but it’s a good decision to cloud them in a smoky fog which should allow the special effects to last longer without looking too dated, while adding to the sense of mystery that propels this film.

Far from being a film about the appearance of aliens, Arrival is more about the human approach to solving a particularly important and complex riddle. Part of that is about science and knowledge, painstakingly constructing all the information you need to make an informed decision while constantly rethinking your approach. Yet what this film really wants to emphasise is the importance of working together and sharing more unusual ideas in order to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems. And whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, poverty, financial crises or any other world-level problem, Arrival is a space film that’s full of heart about the world we know.

Arrival received its European premiere at the London Film Festival. It opens in the US and the UK on 10 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


La La Land – BFI London Film Festival

la-la-land

The London Film Festival is now well underway, and La La Land is one of the most anticipated films being previewed here, having already won huge acclaim and prizes at the Venice and Toronto Festivals, as well as plenty of Oscar buzz. And all of that praise is absolutely spot on, because it is a film that beautifully combines the dazzle and flair of 1950s musicals that you watch with a smile on your face, with the moving intimate drama of a relationship that cannot work in which its central couple, an aspiring jazz pianist and an wannabe actress fall in love and then fall apart.

Director Damien Chazelle’s film is a constant conversation between past and future, where styles, themes and visual effects don’t just merge seamlessly but violently collide together to create a vibrant and engaging spectacle of a film that is at the same time full of heart; in short a love letter to a different kind of LA. As Chazelle explained during the Q&A which accompanied the UK Premiere of this film, he actively wanted to showcase less shiny areas of LA, which burst onto the screen immediately with an opening song that takes place in a huge motorway traffic jam as shiny-faced hopefuls queue not just to get into town but for their shot at fame. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the contrasting hyper-real style and mundane locations but it’s soon utterly absorbing.

But it is a film of two halves, the first the pure Hollywood romance of dreams and aspiration, and the second half the melancholy decline of love as careers takes precedence. Having encountered each other briefly on the motorway, we initially follow Mia’s story (Emma Stone), working in a coffee shop on a Studio lot serving the famous people she hopes to become, while running off to auditions, or attending parties with her 3 female flatmates. Everything in her world is full of hope, and in homage to the classic musicals, it is a Technicolor dream of jewel colours and blurred parties. Suddenly a piano refrain cuts through this extraneous noise and everything slows as she hears Sebastian playing in a restaurant.

Meanwhile Sebastian’s world is somewhere much darker, a rundown flat, jobs he hates and dreams to open his own pure jazz club that he cannot fulfill. A surly young man in the model of James Dean – a Rebel Without a Cause is one of the films repeatedly referenced – he is disconnected from the world and having encountered the more enthusiastic Mia a few times, he’s sure they wouldn’t fit together. But in one of the film’s more enchanting scenes, one magical night after a party they tap dance their way into each other’s hearts as they contemplate the sunset over LA.

A series of fairy-tale dates follow including a trip to the Griffith Observatory where they find themselves on cloud nine, dreamily dancing among the stars. One of the joys of Chazelle’s work here is how seamlessly these set-piece moments are integrated into the main story, and unlike the 50s musical, characters don’t just burst randomly into song, these sequences either explain the emotions of the protagonists or represent the fantasy world of their relationship.

But that’s only half the story and while Sebastian and Mia may be perfect for one another, they both have dreams that begin to drive a wedge between them. Again Chazelle manages the tone change perfectly and it is in this section that as an audience you begin to realise quite how much you’ve invested in these characters, and watching them moving in different directions becomes quite affecting. By the end of the film as you discover what happens to them and their dreams of ‘making-it’, the whole thing you realise is both an elegy to the people they were, and, in a magnificent alternative reality sequence – right out of the fantasy moment in Singing in the Rain and others – to the people they didn’t become.

These are first rate performances from Stone and Gosling, who have probably never been better, and have a particular fizz on screen. Stone’s Mia in some ways is her usual loveable slightly goofy heroine, but here she adds a considerable understanding of the old Hollywood style. In particular there are two key places where she uses a single look to convey a great deal of information; first when she hears Sebastian’s tune in the restaurant, Stone shows not just the weariness of her current life and appreciation of this new music, but also you see her enchantment with him. This is beautifully mirrored later in the film when she’s in the crowd at Sebastian’s concert, hearing his new band for the first time, and realising he has sold-out, her face falls as she tries to contain her disappointment both for him and herself, which signals the shift in their relationship.

Gosling too is excellent as the perhaps less idealistic Sebastian, who, in his relationship with Mia, finds both encouragement to pursue his own dreams and a pressure to reroute them to be the man she deserves. One of the more engaging aspects of the film is seeing the compromises he is forced to make to achieve a form of stardom far from who he wanted to be, and what this has to say about the Hollywood machine. It questions what the price of fame is worth, and for Sebastian it may cost him both his integrity and his relationship. Yet, it is clear how much he loves Mia and while his choices may stifle him and take him away, he makes them for her which means their pain is all the more poignant for the audience.

Chazelle’s film is an extraordinary clash of past and future explored in several ways throughout the film. Not just the merging of 50s musical styles and imagination with grittier visuals from modern LA where beautiful old cinemas and clubs are left to rot, but of the purity of Sebastian’s love of jazz ‘infected’ by new styles of music, and how the personal past and future of the characters plays out. I referred to it earlier as a violent collision of styles and Chazelle keeps control of these elements very nicely often allowing a fairly hum drum moment to erupt into a beautiful fantasy sequence, or conversely punctuating too much dreaminess with intrusive blasts of car horns or fire alarms, forcing reality to come between Mia and Sebastian once more.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography gloriously emphasises this clash of styles and he’s given each of the leading characters their own visual tone – a simpler, washed out look for Sebastian, to emphasise the life he’s living in his small and plain apartment, while Mia gets vibrant jewel colours and plenty of soft Hollywood glow around the leading lady. Some of the best work is of course in the stunning musical sequences, whether imagining the life they could have had or an emotional Sebastian walking along the pier at sunset still forming that tune that would become his signature, Sandgren has painted incredible pictures that will make you smile.

La La Land is then a film about fate and destiny, bringing people together for a time and then understanding that love is not always enough; they may only be able to really fulfil their dreams apart. We learn later in the film, that destiny would always bring the two of them to certain places at certain times, but the sadness lies in what happened in between. Justin Hurwitz’s music manages to be a whole extra character adding just the right balance of romance and melancholy while being a celebration of the soundstage musical. Sublime, moving, delightful, exquisite and joyous, if la la land is a fantasy place for dreamers and fools, then in Chazelle’s magical film it is a place you long to be.

La La Land was premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on 7 October after screenings at Venice and Toronto. It will be released in the US on 16 December and in UK on 13 January 2017. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Film Review: Anthropoid – BFI Southbank

Jamie Dornan & Cillian Murphy in Anthropoid

History is still too often the story of “great men” and Sean Ellis’s new film Anthropoid, which had its UK premier at BFI Southbank last week, considers whether the removal of a key individual can really change the course of events. It’s an idea we tend to take for granted, certainly in public history, and it’s one that’s used to propel any kind of historical fiction, asking us where we would have been without the Winston Churchills, Henry VIIIs and Nelsons of the world. And of course, as Anthropoid demonstrates, the inverse is true, there are also a series of “bad men” of history whose removal it is supposed would prevent all kinds of disasters, wars and genocides.

As a society, we like to tell stories that suggest progress and these are often driven by quite black and white versions of who the heroes and villains are. But real life is far more complicated than that, and key individuals, whether good or bad, are often at the heart of a large network of activities which will continue to exist without them. At the crux of Anthropoid is a debate about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi final solution, with a reputation so fearsome he earned the soubriquet ‘the butcher of Prague’ and whether removing him would release or further enslave the citizens of Czechoslovakia.

Two soldiers, played by Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, are parachuted into a forest on the outskirts of Prague at the start of the film with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to kill Heydrich. They are met and welcomed into the local underground resistance led by the wonderful Toby Jones, who are initially unaware of their secret mission, but help the men to integrate into Czech society, giving them a family to lodge with, jobs and even fake girlfriends as part of their cover.

There have been a number of poor reviews which largely hinge on the slightly misconceived notion that this a straightforward thriller in the style of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, which took a more ‘Mission Impossible’ approach to a botched assassination attempt of Hitler. But while the content and setting of Anthropoid draws obvious comparisons, Sean Ellis – who wrote, directed and acted as cinematographer – is aiming at something slightly different, with the big action scenes serving only to punctuate a taut exploration of a much wider organisation. While the assassination attempt is the film’s core driver, its purpose is to understand the context in which such a plan came about and the emotional and physical costs to the extended network of men and women it affected.

The first hour is entirely concerned with these preparations as Jan (Dornan) and Josef (Murphy) scout locations, secretly photograph Heydrich’s route to work and spy on his daily routine. It is pure character study as the two men begin to come to terms with the task they have to perform. For interest, Ellis has given them contrasting personalities, and during the Q&A that followed last week’s showing, explained that while his background research was extensive, such aspects of character are hard to know which gives the actors plenty of artistic licence.

Murphy’s Josef is the more serious and soldierly of the two, given a direct order that he doesn’t question and leads the scientific process of deciding how and when to strike. He is acutely aware at all times of the dangerous position they’re in, trying to blend into a tightly-wound society while keeping his emotions in check. But there’s also a paternal element to his character which Murphy brings out quite subtly in the protection of the weaker Jan from the full horror of their exposed position and maintain motivation despite objections from other resistance fighters. One point of ambiguity however is the relationship he forms with Lenka (Anna Geislerová) which he initially resists and sees only in terms of fulfilling his cover story. You’re supposed to believe he then falls for her, so as Ellis explained as the film plays out the two leads almost swap character traits, with Josef becoming softer. Some ambiguity is fine, but the idea that he suddenly melts was not entirely convincing, as Murphy’s performance is so restrained it seemed more likely that he respects Lenka for the danger she puts herself in for his sake and sees someone matching his level of sacrifice, but doesn’t actually fall in love with her.

Dornan on the other hand plays a character whose emotions are much closer to the surface and falls quickly in love with Marie (Charlotte Le Bon). Without any back-story, it’s hard to know what previous role Jan had that got him selected for this mission because he responds quite badly to combat pressure, certainly in the first half of the film as his hands shake when he tries to fire, and Josef has to calm him during panic attacks. Dornan does all of this pretty well and audiences will find his warmer character engaging, but it’s a bit hard to believe he would have been chosen for such a specialist and highly significant mission. What is interesting, however, is seeing his confidence grow in the second half of the film as the fall-out from the assassination leads to a siege that separates the two leads, and here Jan demonstrates more considerable military poise, strategy and bravery under pressure than expected.

Ellis is wearing a lot of hats in this production and some fit a little better than others. Given his photography background understandably the cinematography is very striking. Using Super 16mm film it has both a period and punchy feel which adds to the drama of the action scenes while underscoring the more introspective moments. At the Q&A, Ellis talked about recreating shots of Prague from wartime photographs and, because the city has changed, using digital effects to subsequently recreate some of their atmosphere. The linking shots are some of the best seen in a war film with noticeably beautiful images of Prague enveloped in haze and cloud standing out.

It’s clear how much research Ellis has done and this project has taken several years to come to fruition, so the balance of introspective and high action moments actually work quite well. If you don’t go to this expecting a thriller as several critics appear to have, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intricacies of the wider story. However, while the writing is largely pretty good, it feels overlong because the central assassination takes a while to occur and although the groundwork for that is interesting, it’s in the audiences mind as the main event, so some of the subsidiary stories around the romance and resistance in-fighting feel like distractions.

Most of the other characters are also too thinly drawn to add much to the plot or to create much investment in their cause, with the excellent Toby Jones essentially wasted in a small role as the group leader. There is clearly a huge amount of politics between the on-the-ground resistance and that directed from the relative safety of London, so more suspicion of the two parachutists and their motives for doing this would have added texture, particularly in the first hour rather than focusing on the somewhat dreary love interests.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is actually seeing the consequences of their actions play out, which links back to this crucial underlying question of whether removing one key person from history really changes anything. The rapid escalation of violence after the assassination, the brutal torture and efficient round-up of the extended network and how this act was utilised to justify further bloody incursions into Czechoslovakia implies that the costs and consequences were far higher than the resistance had prepared for. Try watching this in a double bill with the excellent Conspiracy a BBC film from 2001 with Kenneth Branagh as a chilling Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference and this may alter your perspective. Anthropoid leaves you to decide whether the removal of “bad men” would significantly change the course of history, but it undoubtedly highlights the real bravery and heroism of the small group of people who tried.

Anthropoid was premiered at the BFI Southbank with Q&A. It opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday 9 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Flick – National Theatre

The Flick - National Theatre

Film and theatre far from rival arts, have long gone hand-in-hand. It’s not just the movement of actors and directors between the two genres that allows audiences to get closer to the stars they love, but both forms look to the other for story inspiration. Countless movies are about the theatre, from the sublime All About Eve to the recent Birdman, films love to focus on the demands and dramas of the stage. And in turn, occasionally the theatre looks right back, not least in a stage adaptation of the quintessential film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard.

The latest play to pay tribute to its artistic cousin is The Flick which is showing at the National Theatre until mid-June. Set in a run-down single screen cinema in small-town America, The Flick is at once a tiny yet epic story of three cinema employees whose lives tangle and collide in the minutes between showings. Over the course of a few weeks, we meet multi-tasking cinema staff members Andy and newbie Avery whose job it is to clear the room of litter, man the box office and sell tickets. It is a permanent job for 35 year old Andy who seeks to impart his picture-house wisdom to his 20 year old sidekick who’s taken a summer job between College terms. But this equanimity is soon disturbed by Rose the projectionist whose presence complicates their burgeoning friendship.

It’s safe to say that this is a play where nothing happens; there is no plot as such, no major events and no revelations, but at the same time The Flick is a character driven piece that gets to the heart of human interaction, suburban life and a particular form of modern self-loathing that each character exhibits at various points. There is an ebb and flow to conversation that is brilliantly realised in Annie Baker’s text which seems to perfectly capture the social awkwardness of colleagues in semi-manual jobs with little in common. The dialogue is surprisingly sparse, almost staccato at times, and you may have heard much about the substantial pauses, yet it manages to convey so much about these people and their likely future.

It is a play full of contrasts and self-contradictions, being both small and substantial, about nothing at all and everything at the same time, utterly hopeless and yet still hopeful. It is a testament to Baker’s creation of character that in the course of more than 3 hours you become so involved in this world-in-microcosm that these vast contradictions can co-exist and, though vastly different and steeped in their own unique set of problems and views, you have invested considerably in each individual to actually care what happens to them next.

Leading the cast is Matthew Maher as Sam (transferring from its original off-Broadway run) whose relationship with Avery is really the heart of the piece. Initially Sam is in the more senior role who at 35 is both the longest serving member of the team, and the person nominated to induct the new recruit outlining the particular techniques for sweeping the auditorium or cleaning the drinks machines. Sam is not an intellectual and his early reticence hides a warm nature and difficult family situation that slowly emerges as the two men converse, but we learn enough to know that this cinema reflects the confines of Sam’s life and whether he knows it or not, this is all he will ever be – something which in Maher’s hands creates enormous pathos. And it is right that these are never explored in detail, partly because the writing and Maher’s engaging performance mean they don’t need to be, but also because they reflect the snippets of information you only ever learn about your colleagues – no one ever really has a heart-to-heart about their broken lives during their coffee break except in films. At work we only ever know what people let us see.

Jaygann Ayeh as Avery is his opposite and equal in many ways (a play of fascinating contradictions as I explained above). Unlike the others Avery is working at the  cinema to pay his way through College, fulfilling a temporary and eventually forgotten role in his life which gives an interesting dynamic to the relationship with the permanent staff. And Avery is incredibly, almost geekishly, knowledgeable about film which leads to some of The Flick’s best scenes as the characters play 6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon or discuss the technical projection of film itself. As in so many of this play’s discussion it is about something else entirely beneath the surface hinting at a gentle rivalry between the protagonists, a warm and trusting friendship, as well as later the feeling of betrayal that sits between them. Ayeh perfectly mixes Avery’s apparent innocence with a growing desire to defy Sam until he eventually outgrows his tutelage – and it’s all so subtle you hardly know it’s happening.

Coming between them is projectionist Rose (Louise Krause – another veteran of the original production) who appears appropriately like a thorn between the two men after their friendship has been established. Sam secretly yearns for her and spreads rumours that she’s a lesbian, while Rose is attracted to Avery. Krause is as seemingly dysfunctional as the rest, having awkward conversations with both men while using her grungy appearance and surly attitude as a barrier. Again we never really learn why but we don’t need to as so much loneliness and emptiness is conveyed in every carefully constructed moment. And through her also we get a sense of the petty jealousies that compound working life, where being taught to use the projector implies a hierarchy among the staff that reflects their romantic entanglements and is a source of much of the tension.

David Zinn’s incredible set is a perfect run down shabby cinema where you can see, and practically feel, the stained seats. Only later as it changes hands do we see it transformed, by Jane Cox’s excellent lighting design, into a nicer-looking but soulless chain cinema. The only gripe about this production is the decision to perform it in a proscenium arch arrangement – the Dorfman is the National Theatre’s most flexible space, can be arranged in a number of configurations and itself has seating on three sides of the auditorium. Yet throughout the play characters sit at the stage’s extremes and are entirely invisible to at least one third of the audience. You are advised about restricted views in advance but it seems a shame to have so many when the theatre space is transformable – so perhaps having an apron at the front so the actors are not obscured by the walls or changing the blocking to have them sit more centrally would help.

A true love of film is reflected throughout The Flick not just with Avery’s encyclopaedic knowledge of movies but in the affection for the technical look and experience of watching, something Baker clearly feels is under threat from the proliferation of digital film-making and the strangle-hold of corporate cinema chains. A culture of meaningless consumption is what she shows us and one that loses a variety of skills right from the work of the director and cinematography, through to the no longer necessary projectionist. Great plays have been transformed on screen while NT Live and its bevy of equivalents have taken live theatre into cinemas around the world. They borrow from each other, share artists and technicians and reflect, absorb and repurpose each other’s innovations. It was once believed that the advent of cinema would kill the theatre but more than 100 years on its clear the two have become integral to one another. The Flick is about so many things, but essentially it is a theatrical love letter to film.

The Flick is at the National Theatre until 15 June and tickets start at £15, it is also part of the National’s Friday Rush initiative offering tickets for £20.


Film Review: Macbeth

macbeth

All. Hail. Macbeth. I’m not usually one for sweeping or grandiose statements but this new film version of Macbeth means I can feel a couple coming on. Here we go – this is the best Shakespeare film ever made and the best version of Macbeth I have ever seen on stage or screen. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most incredible plays and over the years I’ve seen a number of professional and fringe productions, but somehow none of them has ever produced the kind of reaction I’d hoped for. The intensity of the story and how Shakespeare builds the sense of threat should feel devastating and I’ve longed to see a production that grabs you by the throat at the beginning before turning you out onto the London streets dazed and wrecked by what you’ve seen. I’ve been entertained, engaged and disappointed but never subsumed… until now.

There are three core questions that any production must ask itself – whatever choice the company makes is fine as long as they choose and are consistent about applying it. First, what is the role of the supernatural, are the witches real and does their prophecy pre-determine Macbeth’s future beyond his control or do they merely cement his own human agency? Second which of the Macbeths is driving events, is it him with support or does Lady Macbeth convince him to do something against his own will? Finally is Macbeth motivated by power and greed, does he commit countless murders because his human frailty cannot displease his wife or is he essentially evil? Many a production has failed by not making the decisions on day one, and what is so spectacular about Justin Kurzel’s new film is not just that they choose a clear path but it is beautifully realised and reinforced throughout the film.

In a recent interview Kurzel explained that Shakespeare on film often feels a little staid because they start with the beauty of the language and try to fit the rest of the action around it. But what works on stage can be stilted on screen. Instead Kurzel began with the characters, working with the cast to discover who they were, where they came from and what they wanted, so that the language and their speeches should evolve ‘organically’ from their personality. This approach gives a real power to the events depicted and at every point you feel you’re watching living, breathing people who feel entirely believable. The enormous tragedy of Macbeth becomes an immensely affecting disaster that you live with the characters so as the brutality increases to what is here both an epic and timeless conclusion, you’re completely bereft as the credits roll. Like I say, best Shakespeare film ever.

It uses two core themes that serve to explain not just the context in which the characters exist but also the psychology of their behaviour. It opens with the funeral of the Macbeths’ only son, a pagan-like festival, almost Viking in its feel that immediately places our protagonists in the midst of an intense grief. Throughout we see children playing in the fields outside, attending events with their fathers and in a nod to Henry V, fresh-faced teenagers fighting and dying in Macbeth’s army, for Macbeth’s cause. And there is a shocking moment involving children that will be familiar to Game of Thrones fans. Kurzel has taken a rather oblique reference to the death of the Macbeths’ child and brilliantly used that as the spearhead of their motivation. The fears about producing an heir, so commonplace in medieval and early-modern kingship, add heft to Macbeth’s actions in a futile attempt to defy the prophecy that Banquo’s sons, not his, will inherit the crown. Likewise, viewing Lady Macbeth as a grieving mother helps to explain her ambition for a better place, a woman expected amongst her rank to produce heirs, failing to do so and clawing at other entrapments – fascinating.

The second theme is the effects of warfare and the nature of living in a combatant society. What is so so brilliant about this film is the observation it makes about warfare, here depicted in a medieval setting, but so contemporary in its comment about the confusing effects of conflict on the individual, referencing both ideas of manly behaviour and expectation, as well as the emotional consequences of killing and seeing your comrades killed. In Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance we see that Macbeth’s reluctance to murder Duncan comes from this notion that killing on the battlefield for a noble purpose is one thing, but doing it in cold blood in peacetime for personal ends is quite another. Even better, his mind then fails to make a distinction between the two and begins to reel with a combined survivor’s and murderer’s guilt as the ghosts of the men he led to die, now fruitlessly, for Duncan’s cause, as well as those he destroyed for his own, haunt him.

The film is bookended by some of the most extraordinary fight scenes you’ll ever see. The first follows swiftly from the child’s funeral to put the grieving Macbeth in the thick of the action with the camera right in the heart of it all as men clash and flail. Then Macbeth is still as the battle rages around him in slow motion, and the 3 witches appear to him (with an added child witch to reinforce that theme), so the audience knows in that moment his fate is sealed. Amazingly Kurzel and his crew top this for the final confrontation between Macbeth and his aggressor Macduff, which neatly addresses the movement of Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane, and takes place against a landscape filled with orange smoke with flecks of ash pouring across the scene in the wind. It’s visually stunning and epic, a little reminiscent of Skyfall’s final set-piece as Bond rushed through the coloured haze of the moors to save M, and clearly implies a new era of battle depiction that can look simultaneously fierce and lyrically beautiful. The ending too poignantly reminds us that conflict is never over and as one King assumes the throne, another rises to take his place.

And so to the performances; I could gush for hours about how wonderful an actor Fassbender is and I can’t think of a single time he’s given anything less than a commanding performance. People have mixed feelings about films like The Counselor and Prometheus but Fassbender was still wonderful in them. His ability to entirely inhabit a character, to absolutely become them means he can give a performance of considerable depth whether he’s playing a suspect in Poirot, a comic book anti-hero in X-Men or as an emotionally cold sex-addict in Shame. And he is Macbeth and I mean he absolutely is Macbeth. It’s a tough role and unlike others the pitch of it must waver along with the story. He doesn’t start on a high and fall down, or start low and progress linearly, but alters throughout. Fassbender is so utterly magnificent in this role because the audience follows the twisted path with him, starting as a loyal warrior, before he is overcome with anxiety about the murder he commits in a moment of savagery but with tears in his eyes – a phenomenal depiction of conflicting emotion. After it’s done, rather than revelling in his new kingship, he is broken with guilt and fear, seeing ghosts and slumped on the floor of his new palace. Yet he rises again after the witches confirm no man born of woman can destroy him so his confidence soars, pushing his wife aside and, so certain of his destiny, committing tyrannous acts. The bubble finally bursts again in the final battle and realisation dawns on his face with the subtlest flicker as he succumbs to inevitability. All of this is in Fassbender’s electrifying performance and it’s astonishing to watch. The only thing that should be standing between him and an Oscar is possibly his other film, Steve Jobs.

Marion Cotillard is perfectly matched as Lady Macbeth, the arbiter of the plan in this version. There is something quite ethereal about her that sets her apart from the others. Partly it’s the semi-French accent (it was quite common for European royal houses to inter-marry) but her initial grief sets her apart from the other characters so we only see her properly interact with her husband and no one else, which gives weight to the nature of their conspiracy. The scenes between them pulsate with tension as they drive each other to act and Cotillard shrewdly shows her Lady Macbeth channelling her frustrated motherhood and pain into an act of regicide which eventually has devastating consequences for herself. The supporting cast is wonderful to; David Thewlis makes a brief appearance as a bounteous and likeable Duncan, while Paddy Considine’s Banquo silently reeks of disappointment and fear of his friend. Sean Harris arrives quite late on but makes a big impression as the pinched and vengeful Macduff.

Everything about this film has been so carefully thought through and the evidence of that comes across spectacularly on screen. Kurzel has created a completely compelling film that, as all good five star productions should, leaves you both in awe and utterly drained. It is so atmospheric and throbs with danger and tension all the way through – you cannot take your eyes off the screen. It is the production of Macbeth that I have waited for and if this cast could reconvene on a London stage anytime soon that would make this even more amazing. I cannot wait to see this again, in fact I’m off to find another screening now, who’s coming?

Macbeth is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 2nd October. You should really really go! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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