Macbeth review: Fassbender and Cotillard full of sound and fury in significant Shakespeare adaptation

The Highlands are recast as a glowing outback in this extremely stylish and sometimes inspired new version by the director of Snowtown

Shakespeare’s tragedy and noir-thriller prototype Macbeth appears in a new screen version from Australian film-maker Justin Kurzel, famous for his brutal crime movie Snowtown — the story of how a warrior-nobleman is encouraged to commit regicide by his ruthlessly ambitious wife, who then descends into bewilderment and despair as her husband fanatically reinforces his position with an escalating series of pre-emptive murders.

This is not the traditional stage Macbeth, crammed into claustrophobic interior spaces. It is conceived in (and almost dwarfed by) a vast Scottish plain, like Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. The movie never entirely quits the battlefield (“heath” is replaced with “battlefield” in one early tinkering with the text) above which the air finally becomes blood red in a dusty fog of war — a Scots Outback, maybe. The leery figure of the Porter is entirely removed: this is a deadly serious Macbeth, with fascinating moments and shrewd, sharp insights, though often the pace is conducted at a uniform drumbeat. There are slo-mo battles, stylised blood-spouts and bellicose roaring, perhaps influenced by Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — and some mangled Scottish accents from its Irish, French and English stars. The genuine Scots voices, coming from the mouths of minor characters, sound like a documentary-realist interjection from another film.

Photograph: PR

As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a dream-team pairing, actors who radiate charisma, perhaps more charisma than can be entirely absorbed into the fabric of the film. As ever, Cotillard is able to convey enormous amounts with her face without saying a word. Fassbender is arguably less good with Macbeth’s introverted vulnerability and self-questioning, but always effortlessly virile and watchable, responding to Macbeth’s outbursts of anger and imperious paranoia. When he dismisses the witches: “Infected be the air whereon they ride/And damned all those that trust them!” he tops it off with a whooping rebel yell. Paddy Considine is a frowningly vigilant Banquo and David Thewlis is Duncan, the sacrificial victim King smilingly presiding over the nation which sometimes looks focused on a pagan court and sometimes in a vast Christian cathedral from a later age.

Watch the trailer for Macbeth

Right off the bat, Kurzel begins with a bold flourish. Tackling the perennial question of the couple’s evident childlessness, and Lady Macbeth’s mysterious later allusions to breast feeding, he starts with the two attending the infant’s funeral. Kurzel’s version intuits the way that Lady Macbeth is embittered, anguished, and that her grief is what has become twisted into murderous ambition — and he also interestingly connects her emotional torment with the weird sisters themselves, the three witches: a radioactive feminine agony in the firmament, playing on a soldier’s macho aggression. And it’s something that makes more sense of Macbeth’s resentment of Banquo’s son.

Photograph: PR

Kurzel’s other interpretative flourish is the way he handles Macbeth’s speech after Duncan is murdered: “Had I but died an hour before this chance,/I had lived a blessed time …” Some productions show that Macbeth is of course play-acting for the court’s benefit, but also genuinely realising — to his own secret horror and guilt — that he does in fact believe what he is saying. Kurzel and Fassbender play it quite differently. Fassbender’s Macbeth slumps next to Duncan’s blood-stained corpse and sneeringly speaks the line directly into the stunned face of Duncan’s rightful heir Malcolm, played by Jack Reynor, who has discovered the scene. It is if he is brazening the thing out, challenging the milksop youth to fight him or flee, or possibly already withdrawing into his own psychotic and delusional world.

For her part, Cotillard is able to command her own space in the film, doing more with less. As she greets Duncan as the King arrives at their house (actually a kind of personalised encampment) she is a picture of demurely sinister intent and for their intense disputes, while Macbeth appears to want to back out, Cotillard gives a whiplash-crack to her denunciation of cowardice. Actually, her Frenchness is not a problem, she seems like a foreign Tudor bride who has time-travelled back to 11th-century Scotland.

Later, the Macbeths’ “Queen is dead” scene is genuinely quite shocking and Fassbender brings his A-game to the resulting “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. And when he has to address Seyton, he pronounces it “Satan” to give his situation an even more diabolic ring.

There is a lot of sound and fury in this Macbeth, but not without meaning. It’s not perhaps a very subtle version, and I felt that Kurzel should have perhaps worked more closely with Fassbender with the contours of his speeches, and shown the painful mind-changing and nerve-losing in the early stages. There is an operatic verve.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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