What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?
Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
Amid the hurlyburly of war, Lady Macbeth sits alone on the chapel floor, lamenting what she has seen. Marion Cotillard looks out into the empty room, speaking as if to an invisible priest. Normally a sleepwalking scene, here Lady Macbeth’s final moments become her confessional: “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” Stripped away are the doctor and nurse; we only have Lady Macbeth’s lines, an unbroken monologue, largely in one unblinking shot. Cotillard is heartbreaking.
Few major film actresses could pull off Lady Macbeth quite like Cotillard does. She’s an ideal match, cunning yet vulnerable, firm and self-possessed and intoxicatingly beautiful. With traces of her own French accent, she enlivens the text, speaking at an elegant, commanding hush. And the adaptation gives more arc to her mounting guilt. I’ve always felt a gap between the vengeful woman we see early on and her re-entrance sleepwalking, maddened. In this movie, lines and scenes are re-arranged to her benefit. She witness her husband’s public killing of Lady Macduff and the Macduff children at the stake—triggering memories of her own dead son.
For a reimagining from four men (director Justin Kurzel; writers Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso, Michael Lesslie), the movie understands Lady Macbeth best. Surrounding her is a cruel medieval society forged by masculine brutality. You can’t make Macbeth credible without some violence. Why would you? The Scottish play is bloody to its core. But in this movie, the bleakness feels relentless; what we see can numb more than shock.
First off, there are severe edits to the text, which give the movie more anxiousness than I think it intends. Macbeth’s second encounter with the witches (compare the original Act IV, Scene I) is confusing when it’s chopped to only 15 lines. “Double double trouble and toil” and “By the pricking of my thumbs” have both been sacrificed. There’s not much verbiage to flesh out the supporting characters.
And there are visual reasons: The opening battle, a strange lovechild of Braveheart and 300, has slow-mo axes comically beheading Scots to and fro. Could be the goofy impulses of an early-career director, but there’s unquestionably a teenage-boy fascination with the Games of Thrones-ness of the play.
I do love the play for its devilish wit and its swift body count. Kurzel has some good ideas, like a clever reinvention of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. Kurzel really nails it when Macbeth and his Lady are on screen together, an eroticism underlining their most depraved thoughts. (Though there’s a hasty sex scene that overstates what’s spoken.) Fassbender’s handle of the text is gruffly monotone at first, an unhelpful approach most of the men adopt. It’s hard to pick up mumbled Shakespeare. Happily, Fassbender comes into his own as the king’s madness grows. He loosens up, finding more bite and humor in the words, and his Macbeth grows more terrifying. “I have almost forgot the taste of fears,” indeed.
It’s a single-minded vision of Macbeth, often a blessing, sometimes a curse. But to my eyes, it’s fascinating: beautifully photographed, richer than Orson Welles’s under-designed 1948 film, and with a stronger Lady than Roman Polanski’s 1971 cast. There is no redemption for Kurzel’s king—and Lady Macbeth knows that. No more hands will be clean.