Macbeth may well be the third-rail of drama. Touch it, dear actor, at your own peril. Many a thespian has died a theatrical death as the Scottish King only to be eviscerated again for even attempting a role at which critic Kenneth Tynan warned "nobody has ever succeeded" and most actors had "usually shot their bolt by the time of the dagger speech." I must admit to having witnessed some pretty awful Macbeths over the years—Kelsey Grammar and Ethan Hawke were particularly dreadful on Broadway. Tynan's warning notwithstanding, I still love the Scottish Play—theater superstition forbids uttering the play's title aloud for fear of cursing the production. Shakespeare's shortest but densest tragedy has a bit of everything: witchcraft, warfare and legendary moral failures. Taking it on, though, is not a task for pretenders to the throne.
The good news is that relatively new director Justin Kurzel (this is only his second full-length feature) has delivered a classically-tailored Macbeth, which is oddly beautiful in an ugly telling of this blood-soaked tale. Chief among the reasons to champion (and recommend) this film are bone-chilling performances from Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the couple you definitely do not want on your Christmas card list. Fassbender continues to astound with his adroit career choices, both commercial (X-Men, Prometheus) and independent (Frank, Shame); and his work in the title role of Steve Jobs was recently honored as the best performance of 2015 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. But it's Fassbender's Macbeth that should be grabbing the headlines and, hopefully, some attention from members of the Motion Picture Academy when they start doling out Oscar nominations. As for Cotillard, she attacks the role of Lady Macbeth as if by birthright.
"Things without all remedy should be without regard. What's done is done," Lady Macbeth whispers to her husband as they assume the throne in the shadow of their murderous path to power.
Indeed, what has been done by the Macbeths is especially grisly: women and children burned alive and rivals poisoned, stabbed or beheaded (in some cases, all three).
"Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail," says Lady Macbeth in her most chilling intonation.
And the carnage just keeps on coming.
Kurzel's unique directorial choices for his Macbeth begin with an adventurous change-up in the first few frames of his film. Instead of the customary opening scene of three witches cackling about "hurly-burly" (mind you, the witches appear in due time and have a unique presence throughout the film), Kurzel instead opens his movie with a scene of the Macbeths burying a child, thus giving us grave insight into the now-childless couple's motivations. In fact, visions of children (and ghosts thereof) continue to haunt Macbeth at key scenes throughout the film, and with tangible resonance. Even in Macbeth's famous "dagger" scene, we see the ghost of a child holding the blade as Macbeth asks, "Is this a dagger I see before me?" In that scene, Kurzel's unique cinematic vision and Fassbender's astounding performance combine for one of 2015's most compelling moments at the movies.
A word of caution: This Macbeth is not for the uninitiated and not the Scottish Play for beginners. Unlike Roman Polanski's 1971 sexed-up Macbeth or Orson Welles' terribly edited 1948 version, Kurzel's film requires a solid familiarity with the Bard's source material. Fassbender and Cotillard often whisper their lines, so the uninformed could be left on the sidelines trying to figure out the plot, let alone what the characters might be whispering.
Additional credit for Macbeth is to be shared with composer—and brother of the director—Jed Kurzel (The Babadook) and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (True Detective) for contributing to the film's brooding palate. The stark moors of Scotland and northern England, where much of Macbeth was filmed in February 2014, are appropriately ugly and wind-whipping frigid (you may want to bring a sweater or even leave your coat on). Macbeth's wintry bite is palpable, and it may be awhile before you shake off this chill.