Macbeth (2015) Film Review: A Shakespeare Film That Brings Emotions to the Centre Stage
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Michael Fassbender ditches the superhero costume for robes and war paint in Justin Kurzel’s cerebral version of the Scottish play.
A haunting laugh… Michael Fassbender is Macbeth
“Full… full of scorpions is my mind.” Michael Fassbender whispers the famous line hunched over and sweating on the floor with crazed eyes, and a cackle that is perhaps his most chilling, but bold, choice. This is not the introverted and hardened Macbeth we have seen before, but a fervent and traumatised reading of the infamous tyrant, portrayed impeccably by Fassbender. Though younger fans may know him as the antihero Magneto of the X Men reboot, the Irish-German actor is no stranger to the troubled male psyche, having taken roles from a traumatised sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame to the severely mentally ill musician in Lenny Abrahamson’s independent black comedy Frank. For his first foray into Shakespeare on screen, Fassbender pushes himself to the limits to depict the madness of Macbeth, playing off both his commanding stature and natural vulnerability to embody the perturbed character with his entire being.
When Justin Kurzel decided to adapt Macbeth, he immediately told Fassbender that he was to play the man as a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Many modern campaigns around mental health are focused on trying to remove the stigma attached to this disorder, which can cause hallucinations, nightmares and severe anxiety for those who suffer from the disorder. For war veterans, this struggle has been silenced and swept under the rug up until recent history, as admitting to mental health issues has, for many men, historically been a sign of weakness. While admittedly a topical interpretation, a Macbeth who suffers from PTSD is by no means a stretch of the original text. In Act III Scene IV of Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth calls attention to her husband’s hallucinations and it is revealed that he has struggled with these ‘fits’ from long before the timeframe of the play – “Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus/And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat/ The fit is momentary; upon a thought/ He will again be well.” It is on this idea that Kurzel builds a Macbeth who is suffering from the atrocities of war and cannot hold it together in the way that men are expected to.
From the opening battle scene, the gruesome violence of war is undercut by static close ups of the men of battle staring emptily somewhere beyond the camera. Macbeth’s masculine aggression is shown to be something that is performative, drawn upon only in dire situations. When he is told of his prophetic rulership, the anxiety is all over Fassbender’s face. Kurzel’s representation of masculinity in his adaptation is fascinating. Lady Macbeth, portrayed in a powerhouse performance by Marion Cotillard, seems to be taunting her husband with the idea that he is not a man if he does not commit the regicide and he is only convinced to go through with the murder as she appeals to him while they are having sex. Later in the play when Macbeth begins to fully break down, the line “Are you not a man?” is delivered scathingly, a public degradation of the difficult creature she has unwittingly created.
A Macbeth who suffers from dissociation when faced with violence
Fassbender portrays Macbeth’s madness in his body. In the crucial banquet scene where Macbeth begins to hallucinate, Fassbender takes up the entire frame, moving from edge to edge, the camera following him and making his presence huge and domineering. The seven minute scene is intentionally painful. With no background score, all that’s heard is the echo of Macbeth’s deranged rants and hallucinations in front of his audience. We the viewer feel the second-hand embarrassment of Lady Macbeth, who finally dismisses the guests who eagerly flee the banquet hall. That Lady Macbeth is able to raise her voice against her husband, branding him of ill health, feels like a fierce maternal protection. Cotillard portrays Lady Macbeth as transferring her maternity onto her sick husband. Fassbender’s huge presence in the scenes where he is performing the part of a violent tyrant is contrasted in private spaces, where he curls in on himself, is seen close to the floor and is made smaller by the camera. During the couple’s intimate moments, the camera often places Lady Macbeth above her husband and she talks down to him, giving him instructions and rebukes. He often takes on the part as the petulant child. Macbeth can be seen in his inner chamber literally running around the room or playing on the floor in his undergarments. We get close ups of his haggard face marred with tears and scars. It is known in modern times that individuals who experience trauma often become emotionally ‘stuck’ at the age they were when the trauma happened. This idea seems to be played into for battle worn Macbeth, who we can deduce has been fighting since his teen years. Fassbender alternates his portrayal as a cold, still, masculine mask where the character seems to be dissociating, with a visceral, childlike performance in private spaces, where Macbeth seems almost developmentally stunted.
Lady Macbeth appears in Kurzel's adaptation as a woman who quietly buries her grief, replacing it with a hunger for power. There has been debate for centuries whether the couple previously had a child, with ambiguous references in the play text to Lady Macbeth breastfeeding. Kurzel boldly makes this hinted child a reality, with the film opening with the burial of Macbeth’s infant son. The director places children everywhere in the film, as if a constant taunting of the couple. The film also greatly inflates the character of Fleance, Banquo’s young son.
Where in the original text Fleance appears just twice, in Kurzel’s adaptation he represents everything that Macbeth wants: not just an heir, but an emotional bond with his own offspring. Banquo’s relationship with his child, through the eyes of Macbeth, is tender and sweet. Fassbender casts long, jealous glances early in the film at his allies coming home and embracing their children. The loss is felt through ingenious editing by Academy Award winning editor Chris Dickens, known for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. Macbeth’s murders are framed as a thirst for vengeance of their lost heir. We get the sense that Macbeth’s disturbed mentality is that if he cannot have an heir, then no one can.
This film hardly feels like a typical Shakespeare adaptation. Kurzel is a newcomer to Shakespeare, having gained critical acclaim for his portraits of rural Australia. Shot in a 2:39:1 aspect ratio, the sheer size of the screen and breath-taking use of the Scottish location make this adaptation feel almost like a western. There is a definitive colour story present, where the film begins in cold blues and greens and ends with monochromatic violent red, bringing Shakespeare’s hell-like imagery to life. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is extravagant and theatrical, yet the vastness felt could only have been achieved in this widescreen cinematic format. To create a parallel between Macbeth’s deteriorating mental state and the ever more saturated colours on screen could have come off as a gimmick, however the visual device is used sparingly enough throughout the film that the latter half of Act V being almost entirely drenched in red feels like an exciting and innovative creative choice.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw takes a vivid, stylised approach
Director Kurzel and his lead actors are a team of first timers into the world of Shakespeare, and it feels significant to note they are all non-Britons. For Cotillard especially who’s first language is French, it is impressive that the delivery of the challenging dialogue feels natural. This is a team who understood the gravity of what they were taking on, led by a director who humbly brought in a Shakespearean coach to ensure authentic and nuanced performances. This actor-director team brings something fresh and modern to the traditional text. It is certainly a faithful adaptation that brings new ideas to the forefront without sacrificing any authenticity. Watching Fassbender’s vulnerable performance, I wondered how the Shakespeare play would have changed if the 11th century Scots knew what we know now about the lasting effects of war and trauma. Holding up a mirror to male mental health, there can be no doubt that this is a Macbeth for a 21st century audience.