As ‘Macbeth’ divides, Cannes ponders wide-open Palme d’Or race

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Competition screenings at the 68th Cannes Film Festival drew to a close on Saturday with few cheers and a lot more undeserved boos for Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth”, summing up the general mood on the Croisette ahead of Sunday’s award ceremony.


With its dream acting duo of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Kurzel’s dark and bloody take on the bleakest of Shakespearean tragedies was one of the most buzzed-about entries. It proved also to be the most divisive, earning praise from most English-speaking critics and vitriol from the French and typically vocal Italians. Cannes’ self-proclaimed guardians of art-house cinema clearly loved to hate it, but I don’t think the movie deserves the scorn and abuse heaped on it at Saturday’s press screening.

The Australian director of the gruesome crime movie “Snowtown” has produced a visually powerful and at times inspired version of the Scottish play, though stage buffs are likely to take issue with the delivery of Shakespeare’s lines by the film’s international cast. Cotillard reportedly spent weeks with a voice coach trying to grasp Lady Macbeth’s Scottish accent before giving up. Her barely audible mumble is incomprehensible (I had to read the French subtitles to make sense of what she was saying), but she certainly looks the part. Her expression, starting off sinister and ending grief-stricken, is thoroughly convincing. If anything, we don’t see enough of her. The director has given Macbeth considerably more space, to the detriment of his chillingly persuasive Lady.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard at Saturday's photocall for "Macbeth", the festival's last competition entry.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard at Saturday's photocall for "Macbeth", the festival's last competition entry.

Fassbender has more to chew on, and his performance is typically virile and charismatic. But his transition from the loyal and scrupulous Thane of Glamis to a delirious, bloodthirsty king is far from seamless (as is the somewhat anachronistic change of scenery from a Dark Ages village to the lavish, cathedral-like royal palace). Ultimately, all characters are dominated by the eerily spectacular landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. Kurzel’s “Macbeth” itches to break out of the play’s traditionally claustrophobic environment. The misty open-air scenes are intensely atmospheric, powered by a haunting musical score, though the Australian director overplays his hand towards the end by turning the sombre Scottish scenery into a fiery outback. Surely the Highlands need no filter to cast a harrowing spell.

Unexceptional vintage

Saturday’s screening of “Macbeth” wrapped up a mostly solid but unexceptional competition that has frustrated critics and left everyone clueless as to who might snatch the Palme d’Or. There were a couple of stinkers in Gus Van Sant’s inexplicably bad “Sea of Trees” and Valérie Donzelli’s “Marguerite and Julien”, while fellow Frenchwoman Maïwenn’s “My King” was panned by most. A handful of directors appeared to fudge their English-language debut, including Italy’s Matteo Garrone (“The Tale of Tales”) and Norway’s Joachim Trier (“Louder than Bombs”), though the latter film was at least intriguing. I was also underwhelmed by Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth”, despite the delightful one-two punch of lead actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

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The race for the top prizes has rarely been this unpredictable, with some critics ranking “Youth” as their favourite for the Palme d’Or. Other frontrunners include China’s Jia Zhangke for “Mountains May Depart”, a beautiful and bold portrait of the director’s rapidly changing country, and US director Todd Haynes for his 1950s lesbian drama “Carol”. The 2001 winner, Italy’s Nanni Moretti, also has an outside chance with his deeply moving “My Mother”, about a female filmmaker struggling to cope with a career crisis and the loss of a parent. Devoted fans of Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien have put their money on his beautiful but cryptic martial-arts epic “The Assassin”, while others fancy Yorgos Lanthimos taking a surprise Palme d’Or for his brilliant but uneven dark comedy “The Lobster”. For its sheer intensity, boldness and originality, my choice goes to “Son of Saul”, the searing Holocaust-based debut feature by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes.

As usual, it is easier to offer predictions for the other categories. The women’s acting prize looks set to be a three-way race between Italy’s Margherita Buy (“My Mother”), Australia’s Cate Blanchett (“Carol”) and Jia Zhangke’s muse and wife Tao Zhao of China (“Mountains May Depart”). On the men’s side, Frenchman Vincent Lindon (“The Measure of a Man”) and the British duo of Michael Caine (“Youth”) and Tim Roth (“Chronic” by Mexico’s Michel Franco) each gave prize-winning performances. “The Lobster” is my shoe-in for the screenplay award, and I’d fancy Hou Hsiao-Hsien clinching best director for his ravishingly beautiful “The Assassin”.

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