It’s not hard to guess why so many filmmakers have found themselves drawn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There’s something inherently cinematic about this text, both on its surface (all blood and murder and mysticism) and beneath, in its monstrous psychological underpinnings. Orson Welles took a stab at it back in 1948, with a stylized take for Republic (best known for their Westerns and serials); later efforts Men of Respect and Scotland, Pa. reimagined it as a gangster movie and fast-food comedy; Roman Polanski directed a bloody adaptation in 1971, his first film after his wife and friends were murdered by the Manson family.
Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation owes more than a little to the Polanski, aping its rolling fog and blistering exteriors and adding in stylized battles (blood, mud, metal, noise) that make it into something resembling Shakespeare by way of Braveheart. It works; this is one of the best Bard adaptations in recent memory.
Like Welles’ Othello, Kurzel opens his film with a funeral scene nowhere to be found in Shakespeare: that of Lord and Lady Macbeth’s child, a bit of psychological backstory that resurfaces at a most unexpected point. From there, the broad strokes of the story are followed (though Kurzel shaves scenes down to their essence, it’s always for the sake of clarity and pace), with some variations; the witches are seen less as spell-casters than specters, haunting Macbeth on the battlefield with promises of power and glory, if he’ll only do one… small… thing.
Michael Fassbender turns in a bravura performance as Macbeth, and a forcefully internal one; he seems not to project the soliloquies, but to plunge them, sharpened, into his own soft skin. Actors tend to let guilt overwhelm the character after his deeds begin; Fassbender’s performance often runs counter to those traditions. His doubts come almost entirely before the murder of Duncan, rather than after; in the harsh light of morning, he is, and feels, cleansed and empowered. When that gives way to paranoia, he scampers inward — drinking, hallucinating, Macbeth as Howard Hughes. Fassbender rarely speaks above a whisper, and when he mouths the play’s most iconic phrases, he makes them breathe anew.
Marion Cotillard’s work as Lady Macbeth is as external as Fassbender’s is internal (in the best sense of the word); the impatience in her eyes as she watches him unravel is downright unnerving, and double that for her frozen face when Duncan’s body is discovered. This is a viper snake of a performance, playing the character’s manipulative nature to the hilt — her final hard-sell of the murder plan is, to put it politely, quite physical — and coldly dismissing his eventual guilt with a shrugging, “What’s to be done?”
Any time a filmmaker attempts to push Shakespeare on the modern audience in this kind of stripped-down fashion, there’s some pushback — and indeed, as Kurzel dwells on those early battles, it’s worth noting that he’s also delaying the dialogue. But this is a play that supports the bare-bones treatment, because in many ways, Macbeth is a text as much about mood as words; it’s a terrifying, seemingly irreversible dirge, gloomy and rainy and blood-soaked. Kurzel’s film gets that right, and plenty more besides.
Macbeth is out Friday in limited release.