My royal lord, you do not give the cheer. – Lady Macbeth
Often, in interviews, actors are asked why they accepted a certain film role. “Well, you know, when I read the script…” The script! That image that comes off the page, the words that flow, that melody and rhythm. When it comes to bringing Shakespeare to the screen, the rhythm is there. I suppose it then comes to where the screenwriter will cut a few bits and how, oh how, the director will choose to interpret the words. Because as we know: there are infinite ways to understand a Shakespeare play.
But if the play in question is Macbeth, that you have gained the trust of two of the most prestigious actors of this moment, and that your cinematographer and you have developed this unique vision of the brutal, cold but sweat-inducing Scottish landscape, you are already on a very good track.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, selected in the official Cannes competition this year, introduces us to Scottish clan leader Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) who is about to win a sword battle and gain high respect of the king. His army is made up of a few young boys as well as older men, which, when Macbeth has to bury one of his close young friends, doubles up the pain he is feeling after losing his own son (this is an interpretation of the text which not all directors go for).
Macbeth is a figure traumatised by war and loss. As some would just stay in bed a day or two, he is back on the battlefield, doing what he is good at, and exteriorising his grief. His wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), is not able to use the sword as therapy, and tries to take comfort in praying and her husband’s letters from the battlefield.
When she reads from Macbeth that the Weird Sisters prophecised that he would become king, this becomes what she thinks will release her from her grief and she supports him in his goal to kill the king. This feeling of revenge spins out of control as they become king and queen.
The actors… where do I even start? The actors in Kurzel’s film are phenomenal in their portrait of grief and madness, whether interiorised or presented through violence and restlessness. The new royal couple is absolutely interdependent. He is able to do his deed knowing that Lady M will always be on his side. Equally, she has only her husband to lean on.
Lady M does not seem to speak to anyone but her husband. She may be in the presence of others, but does only truly listen and speak, or rather whisper, with Macbeth. She could almost just be an angel, invisible to everyone but him.
I thought this was an excellent choice in insisting on how much she needs him, how without his strength she would really have no more reason to live. Unfortunately, as he loses his mind, she also loses the illusory stability that she was holding on to. As she watches Lady Macduff and her children perish at the stake, she may feel sorry for them, but she is probably thinking even more about what this tells of her husband.
There is a true balance between the two, which is brought forward for example in the interior castle scene when he keeps wanting to kill and she tries to convince him that it is not necessary. The exchange is like a dance, involving Lady M’s gorgeous white gown, a knife aimed at her stomach and a final desperate kiss.
Cotillard’s work as Lady M, from the collected quality in the royal dining room to her “Out, spot” speech, which gains new clarity with the context of her lost child, is very moving, especially considering the text work the French actress must have gone through to interiorise this role. She is a heart-breaking vision, made even stronger by her partnership with Fassbender and their secretive closeness in the roles.
Fassbender is perfect for this role: his blue eyes pierce through his muddy and bloody face, first with anger and revenge, and then with confusion at his own self. “Full of scorpions is my mind”, he tells his Lady: he becomes hyperactive and almost laughs at his own illusions. This is a beautiful performance by the actor.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw does it again after for example True Detective by throwing us into the brutality of Scotland, and hitting yellow, grey and red notes while attentively complementing costume throughout the film. I enjoyed his choice towards the middle of the film of showing Macbeth only from the torso up, with the clouds and the grey sky taking up most of the screen: this for me emphasised the cloudiness of his mind and his lost character.
What a film! The actors of course, but also that little extra touch of fantasy and heightened thoughts through slow motion, which heave the notion of slow death, in body or in mind.