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Classic Goodness

Latest film version of Macbeth gets back to basics for a good film making the Bard proud

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It's common to hear movie audiences lament the lack of original ideas in Hollywood. But then, who are the ones buying almost $10 billion worth of tickets to eight Harry Potter films, and who will likely turn the new Star Wars into one of the three highest-grossing films of all time? Studios, and to a lesser extent the filmmakers themselves, have to walk a thin line between giving audiences what they'll pay to see and the original ideas crowds say they long for that often tank.

On a broader level, though, where would we be without adaptation, if all books or plays or stories were one-and-done? The easiest place to look is William Shakespeare. Had his works been limited to a certain number of interpretations before artists were forced to come up with new ideas instead, what would the total impact have been of the greatest body of work in the English language? No, Shakespeare and "The Fantastic Four" aren't on the same plane, but there is an easy argument to make that the longevity of Shakespeare's work is precisely that they're not new ideas anymore, just new approaches being taken with material that has universal, timeless appeal.

Macbeth, one of the Bard's most jarring tragedies, has been set in Haiti with an all-black cast by a young Orson Welles, in feudal Japan by Akira Kurosawa and now finds its way back home to Scotland. But even though this more faithful presentation is unique from previous film and stage versions of the story, the new "Macbeth" charts its own path. It may be the most efficient version of The Scottish Play in memory, dispensing with all but the most essential dialogue and even excising some of the play's best-known lines, including the Fates' "boil, boil, toil and trouble" incantation at the beginning of the story.

By reducing the tale to its basics, the film is focused squarely on the madness that overtakes Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) after coming to believe that he should be king. That accelerates his next move, to kill Duncan (David Thewlis), and slowly succumb to his paranoia and the extra murders he has to plot to keep his throne.

Fassbender just received a Golden Globe nomination for his work as Steve Jobs, but this performance is at least its equal, and may reveal more about the actor. Fassbender is raw power on screen, whether he's warring with those around him or tearing himself apart from within. These towering Shakespearean characters are something of a rite of passage, and Fassbender has now crossed the bridge.

The other principal role, of course, is Lady Macbeth, portrayed here by Marion Cotillard. That's about all that needs to be said. Although her performance is less of a revelation than Fassbender's muscular work, behind every great Macbeth there is a duplicitous, conniving woman. Together, their brewing madness is something to behold.

What sets the actors up for success is the bare-bones screenplay and the vision of director Justin Kurzel, whose harrowing 2011 film, "The Snowtown Murders," is a vastly different view of darkness, but also one that does not indicate the technical proficiency "Macbeth" showcases. From the battle sequences to the smaller interiors, Kurzel has given this legendary tale new life and maybe even a new direction forward.

There is nothing grand here, or neatly scrubbed, as tends to be the case when filmmakers climb Mt. Shakespeare. There seems to be no deference to all the history of this story or performances that came before. This is a bold—and necessary—take on an old classic, all the more reason to ditch forever some blanket insistence on new ideas and just focus on good ones.

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