Macbeth is a formidable role for any actor, but since when has Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Shame to name just two examples) ever been afraid of playing characters pushed to the limits of human endurance? Macbeth is another matter, and not just because of the Elizabethan verse or because your performance is going to be judged alongside those of many notable Shakespearean actors over the years and even against some successful previous film adaptations by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles. Macbeth is also one of Shakespeare's most complex characters, which is challenge enough alone; one who undergoes not just extraordinary human torments in his bloodthirsty ambition, but also torments of a supernatural nature.
Justin Kurzel's film takes up the issue of the supernatural in Macbeth right from the outset with an introductory scene that sets the tone and some of the rationale for what follows. The film goes beyond Shakespeare's text to show Macbeth, Thane of Glamis at this stage, with his wife mourning the death of what appears to be their daughter, whose spirit then goes over to the other side to join the Three Witches or weird sisters on a misty Scottish heath. As well as setting a suitably dark tone - not that Macbeth needs to be any darker than it already is - the loss of a daughter provides some context and valid character history that could go some way towards explaining what follows; the thane's mad rush to make his own name as king and his subsequent decline into madness as the thought of it ending - definitively, with no heir or bloodline - approaches.
That also provides the context in which Michael Fassbender plays the role with a furious understated intensity. This is not a man whose life gradually unravels through some inescapable fate foretold by supernatural creatures, nor is it entirely down to "vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself". This is a man whose life has been shattered by bereavement from the first scene, who subsequently launches into battle in something of a daze, slashing violently and ruthlessly against his foes, witnessing further horrors on the battlefield and hearing of betrayal off it in the treason of the Thane of Cawdor. This, as the rest of Shakespeare's play goes on to show, significantly marks Macbeth's outlook on life which he famously later describes as "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing".
It's a bleak outlook (Shakespeare really doesn't get any darker than this) and Kurzel's film holds to this philosophy with no remission. Any lightness, any wider dynamic that is there in the play is excised for this film version (there's no room here for the scene of the porter at the gate, for example, nor for Hecate either). As strong a central core as this gives to the film's treatment, it doesn't make the work any more accessible to a cinema audience who might be unfamiliar with the play or frightened off by the language of Shakespearean drama. Nor does the unfortunate decision to have the text delivered flat and subvocalised, rendering much of the language and its meaning incomprehensible. It's a relentlessly dour Macbeth that makes no concessions to a mainstream cinema audience. You have to rely more on the visual character of the film here and the interpretation that places emphasis on the heirs and bloodline aspect of the play to really understand what drives this Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
What is good about Fassbender's interpretation however is not how he delivers and projects his lines - this is not the theatre after all - but how he makes Macbeth's situation human and to some degree sympathetic as he sinks into the blackest depths of grief and depression. Here his mental disintegration all relates to this troubling question of heirs and inheritance. Around blood. He knows he has no heir to succession and is tormented by the idea of Banquo being the father of future kings. Even the vain hope he clings to in the prophesy that he cannot be killed unless it is by a man not born of woman relates well to this same obsessive fixation on the womb that the film centres itself around. The appearance of dead children (in place of Hecate?) emphasise not only his mental impairment but his fear of not being able to have any say or control over what happens when he, Macbeth, leaves this world.
It's interesting that this Macbeth is not one purely consumed with earthly ambition and the quest for power, but it's refreshing also that neither is he weakly dominated and manipulated by Lady Macbeth. Theirs is a strong union (the only strong marriage of equals in all of Shakespeare), and their grief and trauma is also a shared one. Here, Macbeth is a broken man from the outset, sleepwalking through a life that has no further meaning, his legacy cut off by the loss of a child and the subsequent suggested infertility of his wife. He doesn't need any further motivation - in his broken mindset - to carry out the actions that will stamp his own mark upon the world and remove any potential challenge to it from the offspring of others. Lady Macbeth too feels the pain of the loss and Marion Cotillard, to her credit, manages to show that grief without the familiar sleepwalking and hand-washing scenes, overcoming even the flatness of the delivery elsewhere in this film with a poignant reading of her character that needs no theatricality either.
Kurzel's stylisations and additions all however remain consistent in tone and contribute towards a clear directorial vision, one that is informed by historical facts and speculation. Shakespeare himself suffered the loss of a young son some years earlier, which may account for all the black thoughts, and questions of lines of succession are very relevant to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and reflected elsewhere in Shakespeare's History Plays. It also makes sense to separate the film from the theatricality of the stage and push the nature of the cinematic medium's ability to show rather than tell. There's not much danger either of accusations of style over substance being levelled against any visual extravagance in a Shakespeare adaptation, particularly in a work like Macbeth. The film's method of bringing Birnam Wood to Dunsinane at the end is an inspired move (second only surely to Kurosawa's arrow shower in his samurai Macbeth, Throne of Blood) that gives the film licence to shoot a spectacular blazing orange and blood-red finale.
It may still an incredibly dour cinematic experience, but it's far from dull. The pacing of the film is well judged, never allowing the text alone to dominate, but providing plenty of visual ideas of its own to balance and support its distinctive rhythm and interpretation. Each famous scene and speech can be seen to have a violent consequence, increasing in brutality as Macbeth's grip on power and grasp on his sanity slips. It makes short work of its 113 minute running time which seem to fly past in a flash, much like the brief and bloody reign of Macbeth. "A walking shadow... heard no more".