Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and probably his second best tragedy (after King Lear, obviously). It is also one of his most difficult plays. Make no mistake, it is a work of singular genius, but its brilliance teeters on a delicate support. It takes very little in a staging or adaptation to mess up this play. One toe out of place, and the whole thing falls apart into mess of meaningless dribble. A filmmaker invites failure when attempting Macbeth. He welcomes it with open arms when he attempts a direct, historical adaptation.
The Plot: Following a victory over a rebellious clan, Scottish thane Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches (Lynn Kennedy, Seylan Baxter, and Kayla Fallon) who prophesy that he shall become king hereafter. After sharing this news with his wife (Marion Cotillard), the couple decide that the best course of action would be to murder the current king Duncan (David Thewlis). Though successful, guilt and violence plunge the new royals into a bloody spiral of madness eventually leading to ruin. It’s great.
I have never before reviewed a Fassbender movie. This is A) really weird, because I love him and B) probably a good thing, because I love him so much. There is a real danger that I won’t actually review the movie and just launch into a rant about how great Michael Fassbender is so… gonna try here, but I make no promises.
This movie gets off to a shaky start. Justin Kurzel opts for a super artsy visual style, combining jarring editing with slow motion and scene shifts to create an altogether confusing and kind of uninteresting first twenty minutes or so, which is a real pity because the rest of the film is brilliant. Once Duncan dies, the film comes together with great clarity and precision. It’s possible that this was a deliberate decision, to muddle things up until the murder, but if so… it was still a bad decision. The flaws of the film do not extend beyond that. Much as I do like David Thewlis, he apparently needed to die in order for this to be a good movie, but boy does it ever get good once he dies.
Something about this play makes it difficult to put on screen, and so a lot of filmmakers opt to change some things, edit, or add stuff in an effort to make it easier, usually without strong justification and to no real end. Kurzel makes one small addition with monumental consequences, ultimately determining the success of this adaptation. The movie opens with a short, speechless scene in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth bury a child, presumably theirs. He doesn’t conjure this out of nowhere, there is a line from Lady Macbeth later on that could imply this, and yet I’ve never seen it done before. It completely alters the psychologies of these two characters to make them lose a child, but Kurzel avoids camp, avoids hokiness, avoids cheap emotionality. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth suddenly becomes so much more sympathetic as this death haunts her throughout the whole film (her climactic “Out damned spot” speech is spoken to her dead child). Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, these usurpers are trying to use the crown to fill a void in their lives.
Well, Lady Macbeth is. Fassbender’s Macbeth is something else, something I’ve never seen before. What he does with this character works on so many levels. Between the death of his child and the time he has spent in war, he has become consumed by the shadow of death. It haunts him, follows him, and breaks away at him. He is a truly tormented man right up until the regicide. Once he kills Duncan, in a bloody fury, something visibly changes in him; he relaxes. Committing a murder gives him a sense of personal power that he has never had before; it is power without threat. He has killed on the battlefield, but only when surrounded by danger, knowing that death could find him at any moment, or find someone he cares about, as it does his child. Fassbender plays Macbeth with a disarming and uncomfortable serenity, even as he murders his best friend, even as he slaughters MacDuff’s wife and children, even as his wife dies and his entire rule crumbles around him. He has become a shell of a human using violence as a cheap shortcut to power and comfort, but knowing all along the inevitability of death. When it finds him in the end, some humanity returns to him. He welcomes it.
Macbeth is always tragic, in a literary sense, but before this it had never made me feel sad. This is an intensely sad, intensely disturbing Macbeth. Tragedy in its truest form, painful and unrelenting, but apathetic in the damage it deals, like a force of nature. Kurzel bookends his movie with another small addition that changes everything. Since I’m talking about the ending here, and an ending that’s not explicit in Shakespeare, I guess I should include a minor spoiler warning. SPOILER. You know how the witches prophesy that Banquo will father a line of kings, so Macbeth orders Banquo and his son killed, but the son escapes? You know also how in the end MacDuff kills Macbeth and Duncan’s son Malcolm (Jack Reynor) reclaims his rightful place as king? Kurzel adds a speechless epilogue in which he intercuts a scene of Malcolm taking up his father’s sword, confidently taking up the kingship, with a disturbing scene of Banquo’s son Fleance (Lochlann Harris) walking alone along the battlefield; he finds a dead Macbeth, the man he knows killed his beloved father, and reaches down, picks up Macbeth’s sword, and runs away, disappearing into the fog. It is an absolutely chilling way to the end the movie, especially since they’ve cast a very young boy in the role. The message at the end is one of a continuum of violence and death, indiscriminant and cruel. That kept me up.