Justin Kurzel's savage, blood-soaked adaptation of Shakespeare's unflinching tragedy Macbeth begins, appropriately enough, with a funeral: Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), a Scottish general, grieves over the death of his only child, an infant son. Soon after, he leads an army into battle against the traitor Macdonwald (Hilton McRae) and a band of invading Norsemen. Swords tear into flesh, throats are slit, and bodies crumple into lifeless heaps, all in agonizing slow motion. Watching the carnage are three scarred women, presumably witches, who attract Macbeth's gaze. After victory is secured by Macbeth and his men, the women tell him that he will one day be the king of Scotland. When Macbeth informs his wife (Marion Cotillard) of this prophecy, she encourages her husband to kill King Duncan (David Thewlis) that very night and seize the crown. And so he does, in a scene of unblinking brutality that underscores his lusty greed and insatiable appetite for power. Of course, it's just the first of many deaths to come -- by dagger, fire, sword, and bow -- as the heirless new sovereign and his impenitent queen grip supremacy's reins ever tighter, until they form a noose around their own necks.
The vicious spilling of blood in this adaptation of Macbeth gives the story a visceral urgency that no stage production can equal. It's gut-wrenching to watch at times, but you dare not turn away. Kurzel uses this butchery in order to lay bare the deep darkness of Macbeth's scorpion-plagued mind, and force the audience to feel the enormity of his crimes. Fassbender is superb; he is convincing at every step, as Macbeth goes from confident warrior to bloodthirsty king to mad, deluded monarch. It's a richly textured, moving portrayal that sets the bar high for anyone who takes on the role after him. However, the one fault in his performance is his garbled delivery in some scenes, which occasionally make it difficult to process what is coming out of his mouth. Wisely, Kurzel has shot the movie in a wide range of close-ups that ensure that, even if you can't understand the dialogue, the performances communicate what the characters are feeling. Faces -- streaked with pain, longing, determination, sorrow, bitterness -- are used as effectively as the Bard's eloquent words to tell the torturous tale.
As good as Fassbender is, Cotillard is even better. The French actress is a bold choice to play Lady Macbeth, and she once again proves she is one of the best actresses working today, and possesses one of cinema's most fascinating faces. She is by turns sexy, callous, manipulative, regal, remorseful, and in the end, utterly, utterly lost. She is a woman overwhelmed by debilitating despair, struggling to hold on to her sanity. In the famous sleepwalking scene, shot in one long take inside a small wooden chapel, Lady Macbeth kneels before a hallucinatory vision of her dead son. Her heartbreak is unbearable; even though she has committed unspeakable acts, and is responsible not just for individual deaths but for the obliteration of entire bloodlines, we can't help but feel sorry for her as the full weight of what she's done comes crashing down and she realizes that no amount of hand washing will wipe the "damned spots" from her soul. It's a performance that is as unpredictable and daring as it is haunting. She alone is worth the price of admission.
Kurzel shot Macbeth on location in Scotland. The landscape's eerie mists, harsh woodlands, lonely hills, and wintry beaches are used to chilling effect by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. It's an unforgiving, bitter environment -- the perfect setting for the story of a cold, calculating couple with murder on their minds.