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Few storytellers can match Shakespeare for his vast range of timeless themes and awesome characters. Imagine what the Bard could have accomplished if he had had a laptop and smartphone.

Among his works, “Macbeth” — a compelling study of a husband-wife team whose thirst for power leads to their tragic undoing — has been adapted for screen and stage countless times — both faithfully and stylistically, including by Akira Kurosawa for his 1957 “Throne of Blood” set in feudal Japan.

This latest version, however, is a sucker punch to be reckoned with. Directed by Australia’s Justin Kurzel — who marked his feature debut with the brutally gruesome “Snowtown” in 2011 (based on a real-life serial killer in southern Australia) — “Macbeth” shows the director’s fascination with the allure of power, violence and sadism, and how some relationships thrive (and then rapidly unravel) on a total absence of moral compunction.

Macbeth
Rating
Run Time 113 mins
Language English
Opens NOW SHOWING

The cinematography has a contemporary feel despite its setting in the frigid, mud-raking misery of medieval Scotland, while the score, composed by Kurzel’s brother Jed, is heavy with melancholy — an ideal accompaniment to the bleak proceedings. Kurzel’s modus operandi here is to remain faithful to Shakespeare’s words while taking liberties elsewhere. We get to hear the famous lines — “What’s done is done” (Lady Macbeth) and “Life’s but a walking shadow” (Macbeth) — but we also get an opening scene that would perhaps cause Shakespeare purists to balk: The Macbeths (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) are mourning a child, and what follows suggests that the death motivates them to betray their king and seize the Scottish throne.

This scene adds a shade of nuance to Lady Macbeth — she’s not simply a loveless, power-hungry and nagging wife, but a bereaved mother suffering from loss. Macbeth is also not the hen-pecked husband filled with self-doubt. He’s lusts to be No. 1, largely out of a desire to impress his wife, but is also traumatized by the conflict of war. In his mind the end completely justifies the means, and Fassbender’s Macbeth comes off as a cross between an unhinged, love-struck 13th-century warlord and an unbearably chauvinistic mafia boss.

Fassbender is superb, seeming to glide back and forth between slashing through his enemies on a muddy field and striding into his wife’s bedchamber with the deadpan sexiness of Michael Corleone. What doesn’t work, though, is his heavy Scottish brogue, which many audiences may find it hard to decipher and some of which is drowned out by an overbearing soundtrack. You may want to revisit this film a couple of times to understand the finer points of the dialogue.

Interestingly, Kurzel said in an online interview for Vue Entertainment Ltd. that Cotillard was cast in part for her French accent — among the bevy of Anglo-Saxons, she radiates an aura of exoticism and danger. It’s too bad she doesn’t say much and her voice rarely rises above a whisper, but it’s easy to see why a warlord would go on a bloody rampage to win her approval.

“Macbeth” is intriguing, and equal parts gorgeous and brutal to look at, but the psychology behind the desire for power is better examined in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood.” In that film, most of the action is confined within Kumo no Su Jo (Spider Web Castle), Kurosawa’s Dunsinane Castle equivalent. By keeping the story closed and claustrophobic, “Throne of Blood” accelerated the mounting madness of the Macbeth couple as they hurtled toward doom, and you see the truth of 19th-century historian John Dalberg-Acton’s famed declaration that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Kurzel’s “Macbeth” doesn’t quite climb to that level.

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