I was thrilled to find Macbeth new to Amazon Prime this month, because despite critical praise the film never made it to area theaters (even our little indie cinema ☹️). I’m always up for a Shakespeare remake — but most especially if it starts Michael Fassbender (who might be my new Richard Armitage).
Spoiler alert: There are no spoilers in Shakespeare!
The film opens with an artful shot of Macbeth and his Lady, deep in mourning at the funeral of their child—take note, there is no heir apparent for the Thane of Glamis. From the funeral pyre, the scene cuts directly to a battle in which Macbeth, in support of King Duncan’s efforts to quell an uprising against the traitorous Maconwald, dresses his child soldiers. This is bloody business, which we sense Macbeth has a knack for. While the fighting rages, Macbeth is seen outside the battle—or he sees himself outside the battle as the carnage fades into background static, and we get the first glimpse of the Weird Sisters (there are four of them, plus an infant). Later on, while burning the bodies of his fallen soldiers, Macbeth and Banquo confront the witches.
An incredulous Macbeth laughs off the sister’s prophecy at first, but when the title of Thane of Cawdor is delivered, the joke loses it’s punchline. Macbeth, who has been naught but a mercenary pawn in a king’s quest for control is suddenly presented with a prize and potential beyond all his imagining. Luckily, or perhaps unfortunately, his wife is the creative sort. Lady Macbeth is a woman who has courted loss, and given a morsel to cling to, is prepared, without sympathy (or much foresight) to do whatever it takes to rise in rank.
Unlike the Polansky version, which was required viewing when I was in high school, this Macbeth isn’t moping in a drippy hallway chasing phantom daggers—instead it’s the bloody vision of one of his fallen soldiers who leads him to his fate. And that’s really the point of difference between Fassbender’s Macbeth and the others. The film presents our antihero as a man already haunted by death, prone to PTSD-related flashbacks and hallucinations, easily pushed over the edge because he’s been dancing on it the entire time.
He might have been damaged, a war-broken, and grief stricken man before—but he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer until his Lady put the task to him. And it’s not until he reveals his plans to murder Banquo and Fleance that she realizes the extent of the damage she’s inflicted. When Macbeth burns Macduff’s family at the stake, her own resolve crumbles.”The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?” Let me just say that soliloquies are awkward for everyone—Cotillard nails the sleepwalking scene.
So by the time Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, the fire is not only a symbolic force, but a literal driving one. Macbeth will see all that he holds dears turn to flame and ash—with the same potency as the fever that consumes his dreams. The final scene is a triumph for Shakespeare nerds and history buffs. It almost stings that there’s no sequel, but it underscores the tragedy of the play, “a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
The score by Jed Kurzel (here it in full here) hits all the emotional highs and lows and maintains a frenetic energy during the battle scenes. The costumes and sets depart from tunics and ramparted walls. Instead viewers are treated to the natural backdrop of a rugged Scottish landscape and richly textured leather armor and gowns—orange and black for Macbeth, cool robins egg blue for his queen. Fassbender is equal parts sexy and scary. Cotillard is subtle and sublime as Lady Macbeth. I loved the new/old pagan take on the Weird Sisters—their scars, their workings, their eerie silence and looming presence in the film.
Macbeth earns an A. Go watch it.