It’s the role that, according to theatrical cliché, every actress dreams of playing at least once in her life: Lady Macbeth. The conniving, persuasive, power-hungry — and, finally, guilt-plagued — wife of the stage’s favorite tyrannical Scot has been played by everyone from Judi Dench to Simone Signoret to Vivien Leigh. But Natalie Portman — for now, at least — will not be joining that esteemed club, as Justin Kurzel’s upcoming new screen version of “Macbeth” has swapped one Oscar-winner for another. Marion Cotillard will now be crying “Out, damned spot!” opposite Michael Fassbender’s Mac. And, as far as I’m concerned, one of 2014’s most exciting projects just got a little more so.
I must admit, it’s been a while since I actively looked forward to a new big-screen Shakespeare adaptation. Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” — rarely filmed and intriguingly cast — got my juices going, but an umpteenth do-over of “Romeo and Juliet?” Fine, but what ground is left to cover? Joss Whedon larking about with “Much Ado About Nothing?” Why not, I guess, but it’s been done as a youthful romp, and better.
“Macbeth,” however, is another story. The superstitiously nicknamed “Scottish Play” may be one of the Bard’s most widely read and compelling works (as well as one of the most obviously cinematic) but it’s surprisingly under-filmed — especially compared to fellow high-school standard “Hamlet,” which seemingly comes up for screen renewal once a decade or so.
There hasn’t been a major, straight-ish screen adaptation of “Macbeth” since Roman Polanski’s appropriately bleak and bloody 1971 version — a film that remains under-valued, despite the relative lack of competition. Yet arguably, no film to date has captured the play more definitively than Akira Kurosawa’s vivid samurai spin, “Throne of Blood,” in 1954. (Several films have recontextualized the play since, including 2006’s Shakespearean-language, Sam Worthington-starring “Macbeth” set in the Melbourne underworld, but none has served its spirit more evocatively.)
So, in short, the time is ripe for a fresh “Macbeth.” And I can’t think of a more apt and exciting director to take on the task than Kurzel, a fiery new Australian talent whose startling debut, “Snowtown,” was one of my favorites of 2011: a stomach-knottingly brutal study of a small-town serial killer as viewed through the eyes of an impressionable teenager, it was a true-crime drama both unflinchingly candid and non-exploitative, cool and humane and repulsive all at once. If anyone can avoid a lacquered prestige-film treatment, instead taking “Macbeth” to its violent, tortured core, he can.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to think of a contemporary male star more physically, professionally and stylistically equipped to play Macbeth than Fassbender, an actor whose brooding physicality and emotional volatility has already seen him improve on Orson Welles’ Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre.” Welles gave cinema one of its most forceful Macbeths in his own 1948 film; can Fassbender take him on again? He’s pretty much the first actor I’d think of for the role, but sometimes the obvious choice is the right one.
Cotillard, however, is a more counter-intuitive choice — and, I think, a shrewd one. I was intrigued by Portman’s initial casting, while also fearing that the actress might be a shade too brittle for the part, and contemplating someone slightly older and more playfully seductive in her place. Cotillard has six years on Portman — a significant gap when it comes to this role, I think — and a full-bodied performing style that, to date, none of her English-language roles have quite tapped to the extent of “La Vie en Rose” or “Rust and Bone.” I can see Lady Macbeth bringing out that side of her, with Cotillard in turn bringing out the character’s often-underplayed romanticism. The fact that we haven’t seen her perform in this kind of classical context lends the casting a compelling unpredictability.
Kurzel said of the decision: “I feel extremely blessed that Marion is joining our film. She is one of the bravest and most compelling actors I have watched in recent years and I cannot wait to collaborate with both her and Michael in bringing to screen this very human and tragic love story.”
“Macbeth” will commence shooting in the UK in January, with producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman (“The King’s Speech,” “Shame”) steering the project. Bring it on.
Are you excited for Fassbender as “Macbeth?” And whose Lady Macbeth would you prefer to see: Cotillard’s or Portman’s? Tell us in the comments.