Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
These are the words that Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth cries in his darkest hour. He curses the framework of the human condition as he holds his wife’s dead body in his arms, realising that the fruits of his unruly ambition are bitter and cruel. His tale is one of tragedy and death, as signified by the first and last moments of Justin Kurzel’s film. When the film begins he is a humble battle-hardened man, loyal to the crown and honest, but by the end he’s a tyrant and a killer, driven by an unquenchable thirst for power.
“Macbeth” opens with the burial of the titular character’s infant child. This haunting scene takes place upon the stunning backdrop of foggy Scottish highlands; bleak and grey, they’re the perfect setting for the story that is about to unfold. The tone is set from the very start, as grief and anguish are carried by the whistling wind, caressing the sombre faces of Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard) like a lover with a knife behind her back.
A later scene would suggest that it is this very moment which causes Macbeth’s descent into tyranny and insanity, as he battles the trappings of a guilty conscience after killing his king (David Thewlis) and reveals to Lady Macbeth that his mind is “full of scorpions”. As he lets this poignant expression leave his lips in a pained and desperate whimper, he points the tip of a dagger towards his wife’s baron womb, wondering why he has taken the throne for himself if his lineage will never inherit it. It is this realisation which leads Macbeth to have his loyal friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) killed, and this ultimately causes his downfall after a grief-stricken fit of paranoia, which leaves Macduff (Sean Harris) suspicious enough to flee to England.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that if Macbeth’s child had lived he wouldn’t have been so consumed with power, and he also wouldn’t have been so vicious in his attempts to keep it. Of course, it is the prophecy that Macbeth is given at the beginning of the film that truly causes his villainy, but there’s a sense in which that prophecy is self-fulfilling. “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter”! Macbeth hears the words and takes them straight to heart, perhaps because they foretell a story of great success, but he himself makes sure that they become a reality. If he believed that the words themselves were enough to ensure his ascent to the throne then he wouldn’t have needed to act, he could simply let events take their natural course. Instead, he kills his king and threatens the heir to the throne, thus forcing the hands of destiny.
“Macbeth” is a film which evokes many questions, some about its characters and their duality, others about the story itself when the archaic language becomes that bit too obtuse to grasp. Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue is at times impenetrable here, given the brilliance of the cinematography and performances, because when your attention is momentarily captured by something other than the words flowing from the character’s lips you will be noticeably lost. This, of course, is not a criticism of the film, far from it, it simply reflects the fact that “Macbeth” will be more enjoyable on a second watch.
Despite the intricacies of the dialogue and its verbose nature, beauty still shines through. The words spoken are rife with poetry and inference, as Macbeth reveals his innermost feelings and most troubling doubts to the audience through a series of chilling soliloquies. The end product is nothing short of astounding. For every line that flies gracefully over your head there is another which smacks you straight in the face with its magnificence, even when the line itself is made only in passing. A spectacular sense of awe is evoked at various junctures, as you sit back in your seat and realise that one man was responsible for each syllable being uttered.
“Macbeth’s” biggest triumph is the way in which its themes and story are so clear, despite the fact that the language used feels so far removed from the style that we’re accustomed to today. This is in no small part down to the confidence and gravitas that both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard bring to their respective roles. The duo gave everything they had to the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, with the emotion they displayed feeling more genuine than in any other performance I have seen. Fassbender pulls off the transition from loyal family man to brutal dictator with charisma and focus, portraying the internal battle that Macbeth faces without once flying off the handle. His face is pained, his eyes filled with agony and doubt, yet when the change is made they become lifeless and cold.
Cotillard has a similar transition in character, but of the opposite nature. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as the devil on her husband’s shoulder to begin with – she pleads with him to do his horrid deed and kill the king he serves; she placates his fears with venomous assurances that rain will wash away the blood on his hands. She’s a serpent, hissing orders at a man made vulnerable by the promise of power. Cotillard pulls this off with ease. Still, there’s no sense in which Lady Macbeth is simply an evil woman vying for power – she has more depth than that. She loves her husband and she wants what’s best for him, which could easily have been lost, and she’s determined to achieve this goal at any cost.
When she realises that she’s made a grave error in enticing her husband to take the throne, her distress is truly terrifying, with Cotillard’s acting really coming to the floor. The look of pure horror on her face as she sees Macbeth, a man once thought honest, burning Macduff’s wife and children alive, is perhaps the best moment of the film. She knows that she has created a monster, and she also realises that there’s no way that this can end in her favour – she has brought about her own end. This is chilling acting from a fantastic actress, and it isn’t to be missed.
On top of the terrific performances; “Macbeth” can also boast a great score, excellent costume design, and some of the best cinematography that cinema has to offer. These features complement each other seamlessly, making for a film which oozes quality and feels epic in scale. The way that the initial battle scene was shot half in slow motion immediately demonstrated the brutality of Macbeth as a character, and also of the film itself, as each slit throat and sliced stomach played out in grim detail. This was complemented by cries of fear and pain on the battlefield, as well as the battle paint splayed on Macbeth’s face. Each decision felt as though it had been made with care and confidence, making for an assured and intelligent film.
I have very few issues with “Macbeth”, aside from the fact that at times I struggled with Shakespeare’s language (which is my fault), as I felt that it was almost perfect from a technical standpoint. The only gripe I can bring up is that during the final fight scene the orange dust covering the screen made it hard to know who was who, but this isn’t a massive issue. It was a little bit jarring, but it wasn’t overly annoying because the fighting itself didn’t last too long, and it gave way to more great acting.
Overall, “Macbeth” is a wonderful example of what you can do with a great story, providing that you take care with the decisions you make. Across the board, from casting, to performances, to costume design, this is a fantastic film. The only reason that I’m not giving it a 10/10 is that perhaps it wasn’t made for someone like me, but I recognise its achievements and appreciate the decisions that were made.