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.