Review: Michael Fassbender descends into a fog of madness in ‘Macbeth’

Posted by · 9:55 am · May 23rd, 2015

CANNES – This Scottish General is a mad warrior. He takes down one victim after another, seemingly fueled by an endless stream of rage. He applies war paint to the faces of his teenage soldiers and throws them onto the battlefield, eventually haunted by their wasted deaths. Constant war has made Macbeth a man on the edge of madness, and that”s exactly what director Justin Kurzel wants to exploit in his stylistic new adaptation of William Shakespeare”s classic play.   

One of Shakespeare”s most acclaimed creations, “Macbeth” has been adapted as a film or TV film at least 15 times in some form or another, with the most notable interpretations coming from Orson Wells, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa (“Throne of Blood”). Kurzel differentiates his predecessors by incorporating a striking and gritty aesthetic to the proceedings while also abridging the story to allow for a shorter movie-going experience. (Polanski”s 1971 version clocks in 25 minutes longer comparatively.)

This new incarnation, credited to screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, tries to cut the excess fat without disturbing the narrative trajectory of the original material or changing the context of a scene to make it more cinematic. In one instance, the death of Lady Macduff and her children is staged differently by setting it in a forest, where the mad king”s soldiers chase them down on horseback (in the play it occurs in her bedroom). The slightly shorter script allows Kurzel to spend more time staging the battle scenes, which bookend the film and are his primary opportunity to break the material free of its theatrical constraints.

The result, however, is that it all feels a bit thin. Macbeth”s rise and fall seems to occur so quickly in real time that you begin to wonder whether most of it has taken place over the course of just a week. But notably, this “Macbeth” lives and dies on the performances of its two leads, Michael Fassbender, as the title character, and Marion Cotillard, as his infamous Lady and future Queen. They do not disappoint.

In a press conference after the film”s Cannes Film Festival debut, Fassbender revealed that his performance began with Kurzel”s idea that Macbeth would be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after so many years at war. You can argue whether that would be contextually accurate for a Shakespearean construct, but it clearly inspired him to depict a Macbeth that is less insane and slightly more off-kilter. This take especially works when Macbeth celebrates his coronation with a dinner and he believes he keeps seeing the ghost of a fallen comrade in the crowd.

As for Cotillard, apologies for stating the obvious, but her performance here once again demonstrates why she is one of the world”s greatest actors. The French-born Oscar winner delivers Shakespeare”s prose flawlessly and her Lady Macbeth has a shadow of grief that humanizes her more traditional interpretations of the role. One of Kurzel”s most interesting decisions is to diminish the scheming aspect of the character. This Lady is intent on protecting her husband, but she is horrified and distraught over his actions consistently throughout the film. But somehow, despite Cotillard”s strong work, it feels like there is less of the Lady in the film than there ought to be. It may simply be a cumulative effect of the time spent allocated to the action scenes, but something feels slightly amiss.

One theatrical conceit Kurzel cannot completely solve is making the play”s soliloquies less pronounced. There seem to be too many moments of Fassbender delivering a discourse (or two, or three) without interacting with anyone or anything around him. Cotillard has her own moment that lingers a bit longer than necessary, but it pays off thanks to a memorable reverse shot from Kurzel.

Beyond the performances, this new “Macbeth” benefits from Kurzel”s inspired eye, the increasingly impressive talents of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective”) and Fiona Crombie”s period-loving production design. The world they have created for this tragedy may overwhelm, but it's certainly impossible to forget.

“Macbeth” is set to open in the U.S. sometime this Fall.

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