Is this a Fassbender which I see before me?
“The Scottish play” is often considered Shakespeare’s most cinematic, because of its horror-show imagery and (relative) leanness of narrative. But it’s still four hours of people in pretend rooms talking.
Chopped down to a brisk 113 minutes, Australian director Justin Kurzel’s second film (after the harrowing Snowtown) is a little disjointed, but the spare script makes smart moves to alchemise theatre into cinema. When it flies, it’s riveting. When it doesn’t, it’s still pretty damn good.
A wordless scene-setter sees Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) burying their son. It’s an event only hinted at in the play, but it grounds their tragic trajectory and it sets the tone of ruined innocence that continues throughout. Even before the ferocious opening battle, Macbeth and his right-hand man, Banquo (Paddy Considine), cover their faces in black warpaint, their souls already besmirched. By contrast the witches (Seylan Baxter, Lynn Kennedy and young Amber Rissmann) seem relatively benign.
A soldier who speaks like a poet, Macbeth is often portrayed as a gentleman thug, but Fassbender plays him – brilliantly – as a guilt-ridden killer unhinged by his own hand. When he spits, “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind!” you can practically hear them scuttling. The supporting cast are just as strong, though all but David Hayman – a proper Scotsman whose Lennox is gravitas personified – struggle with their accents.
Cotillard turns Lady Macbeth into the ultimate (English?) femme fatale, sexual electricity surging between her and Fassbender. Considine and Jack Reynor (Malcolm) make comparatively unrewarding characters rugged and real. But it’s Sean Harris’ battle-scarred Macduff who takes the crown, his mouth twisting in grief like a man chewing glass.
As in Snowtown, death is everywhere. The ghost of a murdered child brings Macbeth the dagger that ultimately destroys him; Scotland’s none-more-blasted heaths are howlingly inhospitable; and the score by Jed Kurzel (Justin’s brother) is stark with steely menace.
Perhaps Kurzel’s greatest achievement is that, amid all this sound and fury, he creates moments of proper pin-drop cinema: Macduff broken by bad tidings; Macbeth chillingly non-committal at his wife’s bedside; the two of them facing off against a backdrop of hellfire and ash.
Until this final sequence, perhaps the fullest fusion of text and image, the most powerful scenes are, simply, great actors performing some of the greatest lines ever written. Who’d have thought the best thing about Shakespeare was the words?