We gave it a B
The role of Macbeth is a lot like one of those test-your-strength contraptions at a carnival. It calls out to actors eager to assess their mettle as well as the ones who just can’t pass up a juicy dare. Over the years, leading men as varied as Orson Welles, Peter O’Toole, Toshiro Mifune, Liev Schreiber, Ethan Hawke, and Alan Cumming have all picked up the Shakespearean sledgehammer and given the alluring part a mighty swing. Some have managed to ring the bell; others have narrowly avoided getting theirs rung. But the sheer high-wire challenge of playing the Bard’s half-mad Man Who Would Be King never goes out of style. Like Hamlet and Richard III, Macbeth beckons to each new generation’s bravest and brightest lights like a carny barker’s come-on, urging them to step right up and show us what they’ve got.
In the seven short years since he first grabbed moviegoers’ attention by playing IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Michael Fassbender has proved himself to be a major talent who won’t—or maybe can’t—shrink from a challenge. Just look at his résumé since the beginning 0f 2014, in which time he’s played an ambiguous Marvel villain, a rock star with an enormous papier-mâché head, and Steve Jobs. When you consider that schizophrenic roll call, his decision to take on the Scottish play makes a perfect kind of sense. The good news is he’s a soulful Macbeth—every bit as intense and electric as you’d expect. The not-so-good news is that the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as interested in playing as many nuanced notes as its star.
Directed by Australian Justin Kurzel (2011’s The Snowtown Murders), the latest big-screen Macbeth manages to be faithful to Shakespeare’s gloriously evocative language while taking the play in a new visual direction, toward deep-red fire, brimstone, and Grand Guignol gore and savagery. It looks like a Ronnie James Dio music video conceived by George R.R. Martin. Kurzel’s Game of Thrones-ification of Macbeth isn’t necessarily the worst or most unnatural creative impulse. After all, the play is a witches’ brew of grief, intrigue, bloodlust, paranoia, and insatiable hunger for power. And Fassbender conveys all of these bruise-black emotions with a seething ferocity, as does his costar Marion Cotillard as his scheming and no-less-tragic wife, Lady Macbeth. But the film’s raw performances get upstaged by Kurzel’s medieval shock-and-awe palette. The text has been streamlined to make room for more brutal mud-and-blood battle sequences, hauntingly shot by Adam Arkapaw. David Thewlis as King Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, and Sean Harris as the ripsnorting Macduff all tap into the play’s visceral sound and fury. But Kurzel’s epic pageant of art-directed violence doesn’t signify as much as I suspect he thinks it does. B