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.

Here”s the thing: We don”t speak in iambic pentameter either. There”s an acceptance of certain devices – blank verse, asides, soliloquies – that comes with viewing a Shakespeare play, whether onstage or onscreen. Just because a character is talking to oneself doesn”t mean he has to be mumbling.

With Shakespeare adaptations – plays that have been staged around the world for four centuries –  there”s the massive challenge of creating something fresh and new while staying true to the essence of the story and the characters.

There are several choices and fresh approaches of Kurzel”s that are to be lauded. But his direction for Fassbender is not one of them since much of what this character is all about is lost.

Cotillard also explained that Kurzel”s vision had “something is boiling inside, but it”s not showing too much on the outside” of these characters. 

In this interpretation, Macbeth is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, Fassbender told press at Cannes. Makes sense, right? The guy”s seen the horror of war for far too long – of course there”s lingering trauma from that experience.

But this “not showing too much on the outside” PTSD approach ends up being problematic. Fassbender”s Macbeth is withdrawn, bottled up, weary – and so he shows no passion for the crown, no eagerness to be king that would drive the ambition that”s essential to the character of Macbeth. He is barely moved by the Weird Sisters” prophecy. (Paddy Considine”s Banquo says, “Why do you start and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?” but the words make no sense here since Macbeth had no such visible reaction.) He looks downright bored at his coronation. This is a character that”s about ambition. This is a play about ambition. And that”s lost here in Kurzel”s adaptation.

In the stoicness, the uniform stoniness of Fassbender”s Macbeth, we lose his arc. (This is due also to the passage of time not being all that evident in Kurzel”s film. It seems like the film”s events take place in just a matter of a couple weeks.) Macbeth”s arc from content war hero to man dazzled by the possibility of power to a ruthless tyrant is traced far better by Jon Finch in Roman Polanski”s 1971 take on the tragedy. Fassbender”s Macbeth kills Duncan just as brutally as he kills his enemies in the battle with the Norwegian army. There”s no evidence of remorse after he kills his guest and king – just relief that the deed is done. And with text that Kurzel transfers from the morning after the murder to the night of (“Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time….”), these words of put-on-yet-also-real grief and despair just become cold mockery when spoken to Duncan”s son, Malcolm, who sees here that Macbeth has killed the king. It could have been a compelling transfer of the text to a different moment and a different character listening to Macbeth – but as a part of the whole picture of Fassbender”s take on the character, it ends up making him a consistently cold character.

That makes Fassbender”s Macbeth less relatable.

Shakespeare designed Macbeth to be a relatable character. Don”t believe me on that account? Believe celebrated Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom: “Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable,” Bloom wrote in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.” “Why are we unable to resist identifying with Macbeth? He so dominates the play that we have nowhere else to turn.”

Most of us aren”t faced with moral quandaries with quite the political implications of Macbeth”s, but we can identify with that indecision of whether to do the right thing, of whether to allow oneself to be tempted to do what we know to be wrong or unkind, and we can identify with the guilt that comes after we fail to do good. We also can relate to his ambition, his imaginings of becoming something greater. Fassbender”s Macbeth displays neither the ambition nor the remorse of Shakespeare”s Scottish king.

Bloom also pointed out that “if we are compelled to identify with Macbeth, and he appalls us (and himself), then we must be fearsome also.” There”s no opportunity for that compelling and challenging way to respond to Macbeth in Kurzel”s film since he is just fearsome without being so relatable.

Interestingly, though, this choice makes Lady Macbeth more sympathetic. Cotillard here displays more skill at (or was given more opportunity to) reveal a lot of what”s going on with her Lady M, one where the darkness and scheming in the character is rather toned down. Even through the understated performance, Cotillard shows a lot by doing very little: Her devotion to her husband is evident, as is her horror and despair and enraged embarrassment at the sight of his unraveling. The one scene when Fassbender matches his co-star in this regard is in a quietly intense scene when Macbeth deplores his lack of heir. That dialogue is part of a soliloquy in the play, but in this film he says these words to his wife”s face: “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown and put a barren scepter in my grip.” This does contribute to the cruelty of this Macbeth, as he presses a dagger against Lady M”s stomach (it”s your fault, you”re the reason I have no children), but there”s also a lot more packed into this scene, including, just for an instant, some regret in this Macbeth.

You can watch part of that scene in this clip. No surprise the distributors decided to share that clip with potential ticket-buyers.

It”s the one moment in the film when I glimpsed the “Macbeth” I had hoped for when I”d heard the film would boast these two talented, fascinating actors in the lead roles. I have no doubt Fassbender would have been up for the task of better capturing Shakespeare”s character had he been given different direction. The man I saw play Magneto could have pulled off Macbeth. Such a shame the film is but a walking shadow of the great Cotillard-Fassbender “Macbeth” that could have been.