Fassbender fans who want to see him play an ambitious tyrant prepared to get success by any measure…Steve Jobs comes out on the 23rd October. Until then, he’s in the new film version of Macbeth.
Shakespeare adaptions tread a fine line. On the one hand, staid and traditional Shakespeares have been done to death and by some of the greats of acting and directing. In trying to do something new, however, directors can get totally lost on what I like to call the Shakespeare Fruit Machine. You spin, and pick a play, setting and genre almost at random. At best, this approach can be gimmicky, at worst it is just plain non-sensical – for every Romeo + Juliet (Romeo and Juliet, Venice Beach, music video) there’s a Romeo Must Die (R&J, Oakland, kung-fu clusterfuck).
So which side does Fassbender-Cotillard Macbeth fall on? In some ways, you cannot help but thinking the film could have been better had director Justin Kurzel picked an outlandish scenario. As it is, the film has a historical setting, but falls foul of some of the worst cinematic cliches of modern filmmaking.
Kurzel does a great job at creating beautiful mise-en-scene, lit as if in a Malick film. He then undoes all of this work with a lot of shaky hand-camera work, as if Macbeth takes a break from scheming in medieval Scotland and takes up a GoPro.
In general, a little more confidence in the beautiful images in this film would infinitely improve it. Maybe it is a confidence that will come in time (this is, after all, only the director’s second feature), because this film would be gorgeous if only we stayed on one image long enough to take it in.
It might sound like the oddest of compliments, but it is a compliment nonetheless; the director has a real eye for filming bodily fluids. Blood, sweat, saliva and tears are the stuff this play is made out of, and all are used extremely well here in close ups where we can see every drip and every spurt. Although we could do without this many (to quote Whiplash) ‘single tear people’, Kurzel generally has a knack of making stabbing or sobbing look almost balletic. Again, though, this could be prosaic stuff if it was not edited like a royal Raging Bull.
Perhaps why these modern cinema images are so distracting is that at its heart this is a very classical piece of filmmaking, with its most direct influences being Malick’s Days of Heaven and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. On top of that, Marion Cotillard is framed closely throughout, reminding the viewer of nothing more than Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. It is a clever reference, adding shade to a character than can be played as a kind of Dark Ages version of a Joan Collins character.
..and Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (© Société Générale des Films)
It is lucky that this is done, as Cotillard is burdened throughout the film in an English accent that she simply is unable to properly emote in. Which is a great shame, as Cotillard is perhaps a dream choice for the role (though personally I would love to see the actually Scottish Tilda Swinton reclaim the role she played on stage a decade ago, age gap be damned!), and there is little reason why she could not just be allowed an accent she can emote fully in. Hell, if the Patrick Stewart Macbeth can be set in a hospital with nurses as the Wyrd Sisters, then it is not too much of a stretch to have a French Lady Macbeth.
Although these criticisms prevent the film being a great, it is a thoroughly good film. Fassbender is at his most Fassbendery and the shots when you have time to see them are stunning. Give him a few more films and Kurzel could give us a fascinating film indeed if he can find the confidence to let his inner auteur out and give us a film that breezes through its hour on the stage, all quiet and poise, signifying everything.