At the start of this brilliant, brutal film of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth lays oyster shells over the eyes of his dead son: an eerie funeral rite before the tiny body is burned on a pyre. Traditionally, the Macbeths have been portrayed as power-hungry. Cutting loose the play’s baggage, Australian director Justin Kurzel (who made the ultraviolent true-crime film ‘Snowtown’) recasts them as damaged. Untethered by grief, ambition fills the void, as Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) lures her husband into dark places, manipulating him into murdering the king.
This ‘Macbeth’ is ferociously well acted. Fassbender’s prowling energy electrifies the film. He is utterly convincing as the battle-weary warrior: his face is a map of scars, with the hollowed-out, blank-eyed look of a man who has seen too much death (Fassbender has said he thought of his Macbeth as suffering from PTSD). Lady Macbeth can often be hard to watch, shrill and one-note, yet Cotillard, with that face you could stare at for hours, makes her subtle and human. Admittedly she struggles with the Scots – though, to be fair, she’s not the only actor here with an all-over-the-place accent.
Still, both actors risk being upstaged by the natural elements. The wild Scottish Highlands, with its hardness and beauty, is a landscape that seems to have a murderous impulse of its own. And rising-star Kurzel directs this Shakespeare like a western: spare and savage.