How Michael Fassbender got Macbeth wrong

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths: It seemed to be perfect casting. Which is what makes this adaptation of William Shakespeare”s bloody tale of ambition spun out of control all the more disappointing.

The latest film adaptation of the Scottish play, which premiered at Cannes this year and opened in U.S. theaters last weekend, boasts plenty of smart choices. It”s gorgeously shot, with the mud-soaked battles and the moody fog of the Highlands setting just the right foreboding tone.  Director Justin Kurzel delivers a striking new take on Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane that thankfully avoids the inevitably silly image of soldiers approaching a castle whilst hiding behind tree branches.

But (you knew there was a ‘but” coming, didn”t you?) the approach to the lead performances, especially Fassbender”s, is misguided.

This is a very quiet “Macbeth,” one without the sound and fury the text demands. Fassbender and Cotillard deliver understated, subtle performances and speak much of their dialogue in whispers, some of it bordering on monotone.

That minimalist style may be preferable to another ill-advised approach to Shakespeare: the over-emoting where the actor excessively adds emphasis and breaths and intonation in seemingly arbitrary manner. I”ve seen those performances in Shakespeare productions, and they clash horribly with their co-stars” naturalistic performances. 

Fassbender plays from the opposite extreme, but both his and the over-emoting style have the same problems: The meaning of and emotion behind the words aren”t communicated to the audience. In the steady speech of this “Macbeth,” the actors right skid through a lot of dialogue that should have its own weight and nuances.

When I spoke with Marion Cotillard about the film, I asked about that understated, subtle approach, and she said, “Besides people who”ve lost their mind, nobody talks to oneself. I don”t do soliloquy. I sometimes talk to myself but not like a long monologue!” She explained that her director was going for “a sense of authenticity and reality” for the film”s soliloquies.