Based on Shakespeare’s shortest play, the new and breathtaking Justin Kurzel film version shaves off more of the Bard’s dialogue than one would think possible in attempting to render the story to life on screen. Yet so visceral and picturesque are the visuals, such starving ambition and bleeding madness can Fassbender and Cotillard convey with a simple look, and so intrinsic a character is the severely grim and bitter Scottish countryside, that fewer words are needed to induce the investment of the audience.
Fassbender is gut-wrenchingly authentic in the titular role, at first stoic and strong in front of his peers, hiding a tortured anguish only evident in shaky interactions with his wife. Cotillard’s unearthly beauty is a pale veneer covering the sickly black soul with which she is left following the death of their son and heir. The intimacy of their plotting – mouths so close they speak with the same air – is a charged and voyeuristic watch. Macbeth and his wife gradually switch roles throughout the film: he intially reluctant and heartbroken morphing into a mad and implacable tyrant: she of the goading and acid-tongued amibition soon giving way to despair and regret. The violence of Macbeth’s precipitous descent into madness is matched only by the increasing levels of violence he employs in dispatching his victims. Fassbender and Cottilard’s portrayals are pointedly perfect.
The “Out, damned spot!” soliloquy is a testament to Cotillard’s skill: an understated, quietly devastating piece of acting that a Kurzel visual twist makes doubly haunting. Whilst the two leads so far outshine the rest of the cast as to render them close to invisible, there are moments of pure heartbreak delivered at the deft and experienced hands of David Thewlis as King Duncan and Sean Harris as Macduff. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff brings a memorable pathos to her tiny amount of screen time, whilst the weird sisters and their eerie accompanying sound effects leave the audience quietly unsettled.
The throbbing score by Jed Kurzel – brother of the director – beautifully underscores the drama, while makeup by Jacqueline Durran lends otherworldy touches. The Birnam Wood’s advance upon Dunsinane is brilliantly realised and lends the perfectly hellish backdrop to Macbeth’s final scenes. You don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to appreciate the clever filmmaking on show here, but you do need to be prepared for an intensely emotional experience.