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The battle’s lost in this ‘Macbeth’

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s film.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s film.Jonathan Olley/The Weinstein Co.

Why is Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) so ambitious? And why is his wife (Marion Cotillard) so mean? Didn't Shakespeare ever hear of back stories?

Justin Kurzel ("The Snowtown Murders"), director of the latest adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy about the codependent power couple, certainly wonders about such things. It seems the Macbeths may have had a son — or so legions of bickering academics conjecture. In Kurzel's "Macbeth" he makes an appearance as a kid who serves by the side of his father in the furious opening Battle of Ellon. Dad binds a sword to the boy's hand, but it doesn't save him.

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No one talks about it afterward. Something like that can really mess a couple up.

It rarely pays to rewrite works of genius that have endured for over four centuries. In this case, though, the addition is understandable. "Macbeth," as Roman Polanski and Orson Welles depict in their versions, writhes with twisted sexual forces and the conflict between chaos and reason. These days a simple tale of a couple driven by guilt and recrimination to make poor decisions after the death of a child is more palatable. And don't forget PTSD. So cut the returning hero some slack when he burns someone else's family at the stake.

More than revisionism, however, Kurzel's version has a problem with tone, or lack thereof. It rambles along in neutral, its flat affect and monotone line readings matched by a near monochromatic (think red) palette and a funereal, droning electronic soundtrack that sounds like a fusion of bagpipes and squeezeboxes. Only the scenes of carnage and combat jolt the production out of its coma into something resembling a dull episode of "Game of Thrones."

Not all of Kurzel's innovations are detrimental. His interpretation of the Birnam Wood prophecy is ingenious and chillingly recalls a scene in "Schindler's List." Augmenting the three weird sisters with a little girl (who looks left over from "The Shining") and a baby intensifies the uncanniness. And turning Macbeth's famous "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue into a macabre waltz with his dead Lady suggests a tone of gleeful nihilism that might have been further explored.

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But the fundamental problem with this "Macbeth" is that it insists on reducing the mystery of motivation to the pop psychology of a magazine article. Shakespeare's plays endure not because he answers questions, but because he raises questions that have no answers. Also, he knew his way 'round a parchment with a quill pen, and Kurzel has a tin ear for the music of his language. Let's hope he doesn't get his hands on "Hamlet" next.

MACBETH

Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 110 minutes. R (strong violence and brief sexuality).


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.