From Shame to Shakespeare: Michael Fassbender triumphs in Macbeth

23 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cannes Film Review: ‘Macbeth’.

She was joined by co-star Michael Fassbender who takes the leading role in the adaptation of the Shakespeare classic due to be released later this year. He first came to prominence for his portrayal of a business executive addicted to sex in British director Steve McQueen’s sexually explicit Shame, before going on to play the brutal plantation owner in the same director’s 12 Years a Slave.

Shakespeare’s tragedy and noir-thriller prototype Macbeth appears in a new screen version from Australian film-maker Justin Kurzel, famous for his brutal crime movie Snowtown — the story of how a warrior-nobleman is encouraged to commit regicide by his ruthlessly ambitious wife, who then descends into bewilderment and despair as her husband fanatically reinforces his position with an escalating series of pre-emptive murders.This Macbeth roils the bloody butchery of battle, and feeds like carrion on the undertow of passion between Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.Michael Fassbender is cool and composed, calmly answering questions from a reporter, with one exception: when it’s suggested he’s not quite as severely serious as some of the films he’s made. “I would (expletive) hope not!” he exclaims, his head rolling back as he lets out a roar. “I hope definitely not.

Keeping her accessories simple, the actress wore a gold necklace around her neck and wore her brunette locks straight with chunks pinned off of her face. Now Michael Fassbender has been hailed as one of the greatest screen actors to ever play Shakespeare, for his performance in the latest film version of Macbeth. Although tradition is upheld with a Dark Ages-Early Christian period setting, actually shot in Scotland for once (unlike the 1971 Roman Polanski version), in most other respects Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) filters Shakespeare’s tragic story of murderous ambition through a resolutely modern sensibility.

He’s maintaining the theatrical superstition of not speaking the name of Shakespeare’s play — at least he wasn’t in an interview ahead of the festival. “Macbeth,” usually referred to by the euphemism “the Scottish play” by actors wary of its legendary spell, will be the final film to screen in competition at Cannes. Even the onscreen text, which informs the audience that the rebel Macdonwald is trying to overthrow King Duncan, arrives with ample panache — the text pulls up to slowly reveal a red blood sunset and a silhouetted figure of our titular hero.

As Fassbender’s Macbeth says, “full of scorpions is my mind”, and you watch each dark and guilty thought gestate on his face, while his handling of the text makes it as natural as breathing the damp Scottish air on Skye, where the film was shot. The movie never entirely quits the battlefield (“heath” is replaced with “battlefield” in one early tinkering with the text) above which the air finally becomes blood red in a dusty fog of war — a Scots Outback, maybe.

With its foregrounded class conflict, horror-movie spookiness and, most importantly, use of brutal violence, it’s an adaptation that has a much better chance than most Bard-based works of crossing-over to audiences beyond the arthouses. The leery figure of the Porter is entirely removed: this is a deadly serious Macbeth, with fascinating moments and shrewd, sharp insights, though often the pace is conducted at a uniform drumbeat. I try to put everything into my work and then enjoy my downtime with as little drama as possible.” Putting aside for a moment the question of whether Fassbender spends much time doing needlepoint, his response crystallizes something striking about the 38-year-old actor: Despite the deep, often dark places he goes for a character, he bounces back with the lightness of an Irish featherweight. There are slo-mo battles, stylised blood-spouts and bellicose roaring, perhaps influenced by Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — and some mangled Scottish accents from its Irish, French and English stars.

The one constituency that probably won’t look especially kindly on this will be stringent Shakespeare purists, who might start with scoffing at why three people (Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie) are credited for the screenplay before Shakespeare’s name even gets a mention. (Presumably, they collaborated on the trimming down the dialogue and plotting several wordless scenes not in the original and the like.) Viewers accustomed to theatrical versions of Shakespeare may also be considerably less impressed. When he’s not playing a menacing slave owner or a hunger-striking Bobby Sands, Fassbender is easygoing and playful — certainly not brooding. “Most people in the world do really hard jobs and they do them every day of the week. This Macbeth is the kind of alpha male that Kurzel excelled at essaying in his 2010 debut “The Snowtown Murders” — strong, determined and single-minded.

He was reunited with McQueen in 2011, with Shame, and continued to balance commercially lucrative roles in boxoffice blockbusters such as the X-Men series and more independent films like Fish Tank, about a teenager on an East London council estate, in which he plays her mother’s Irish boyfriend. I live a pretty sort of privileged life,” he says. “There’s no place for me to go, ‘Yeah, it was pretty difficult and it was psychologically wearing and blah blah blah’. Although the film’s press notes talk up how much the whole cast worked with coach Neil Swain to refine their delivery, there’s an awful lot of mumbling going on here, and a sense that while the emotion might be discernible in the performer’s face, it’s like some kind of free-floating entity not tethered to what’s coming out of his or her mouth.

Throw into the mix three straggly clairvoyants who come from different generations — old, adult, and child — and “Macbeth” develops the ominous atmosphere of “The Wicker Man” more than anything in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Fassbender is arguably less good with Macbeth’s introverted vulnerability and self-questioning, but always effortlessly virile and watchable, responding to Macbeth’s outbursts of anger and imperious paranoia. Fassbender plays a hardened bounty hunter, chewing on the same cigarillos Clint Eastwood munched on, who takes in a young romantic traveler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from Scotland pursuing his love (Caren Pistorius).

When he dismisses the witches: “Infected be the air whereon they ride/And damned all those that trust them!” he tops it off with a whooping rebel yell. Kurzel’s debut feature, fact-based serial killer drama Snowtown, leaned so heavily on low-key performances and dialed-up, cuss-word rich speech, it achieved quasi-documentary levels of naturalism. Paddy Considine is a frowningly vigilant Banquo and David Thewlis is Duncan, the sacrificial victim King smilingly presiding over the nation which sometimes looks focused on a pagan court and sometimes in a vast Christian cathedral from a later age. The director gives Fassbender plenty of opportunities to convey Macbeth’s developing madness, particularly when he’s running around his huge, minimalist, but rather cold-looking bedroom.

Tackling the perennial question of the couple’s evident childlessness, and Lady Macbeth’s mysterious later allusions to breast feeding, he starts with the two attending the infant’s funeral. They are a Scots-accented, generation-spanning trio who gather in the mist to discuss Macbeth’s fate with flat, cackle-free voices, like housewives sharing a recipe for Dundee cake. Kurzel’s version intuits the way that Lady Macbeth is embittered, anguished, and that her grief is what has become twisted into murderous ambition — and he also interestingly connects her emotional torment with the weird sisters themselves, the three witches: a radioactive feminine agony in the firmament, playing on a soldier’s macho aggression. Dialogue aside, they only way you might know they’re witches is because they have weird markings between their eyebrows, like vestigial gills or scars left over after the removal of a third eye.

When the battle ends and the story settles down into a tale of reckless ambition involving the relationship between Macbeth and his Lady, the scenes lack substance. The whole opening act is punchy as hell as Kurzel and crack editor Chris Dickens (Slumdog Millionaire, Shaun of the Dead) deftly weave together contracted versions of key scenes and invented sequences that usefully fill out the story — like a battle that sees Macbeth, his right-hand man Banquo (Paddy Considine) and their men defeat invading Norsemen and the traitor Macdonwald, all done with a mix of slo-mo and drop-frame speed that emphasizes the carnage and chaos of medieval warfare. Slow West is in line with the adventurous indies (A Dangerous Method, Fish Tank) that Fassbender has sometimes favored; last year, he spent nearly the entirety of the eccentric Frank with a papier-mâché head over his own.

Intriguingly, Marion Cotillard plays Lady Macbeth in grieving mother mode, tapping into a longstanding theory among Shakespeare aficionados that the couple had children before the events of the play; this tragedy sets her on a path toward madness. Kurzel’s other interpretative flourish is the way he handles Macbeth’s speech after Duncan is murdered: “Had I but died an hour before this chance,/I had lived a blessed time …” Some productions show that Macbeth is of course play-acting for the court’s benefit, but also genuinely realising — to his own secret horror and guilt — that he does in fact believe what he is saying. It’s his ghost, blackened and blood-smeared but like all the other supernatural elements just a matter of fact part of this world, who holds out the dagger to Macbeth for the “is this a dagger I see before me?” speech just before the murder of King Duncan (David Thewlis, whom you can tell is meant to be the king because, to quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he “hasn’t got shit all over him”).

Fassbender’s Macbeth slumps next to Duncan’s blood-stained corpse and sneeringly speaks the line directly into the stunned face of Duncan’s rightful heir Malcolm, played by Jack Reynor, who has discovered the scene. In hunting for a star for a highly anticipated Steve Jobs biopic, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin questioned the casting of Fassbender: “I don’t know who Michael Fassbender is and the rest of the world isn’t going care.” Sorkin eventually came around: “He’s a great actor whose time has come.” Fassbender recently finished shooting the film, directed by Danny Boyle. It is if he is brazening the thing out, challenging the milksop youth to fight him or flee, or possibly already withdrawing into his own psychotic and delusional world. Otherwise, a lot of the extra-textual additions work to flesh out Lady Macbeth’s character and make her less than a stock scheming bitch and more comprehensible as a woman driven by frustration, grief and, yes, greed.

The trouble is that by having a strong man and grieving, traumatized woman as the principle couple, Kurzel doesn’t leave room to explain their coupling. Cotillard’s French accent effectively underscores her otherness, suggesting that she might be the equivalent, with her Medusa braids and outre, Adam Ant-style smear of blue eyeshadow, of a medieval mail-order bride who’d understandably like a better life than the hard scrabble of survival in a shabby tent watching her children die. As she greets Duncan as the King arrives at their house (actually a kind of personalised encampment) she is a picture of demurely sinister intent and for their intense disputes, while Macbeth appears to want to back out, Cotillard gives a whiplash-crack to her denunciation of cowardice. Cotillard nails the character’s final, “out damn spot” monologue with a display of cracked sanity and despair that will surely reap this already much admired actress further awards recognition.

Later, the Macbeths’ “Queen is dead” scene is genuinely quite shocking and Fassbender brings his A-game to the resulting “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. Fassbender’s turn may be only fractionally less impressive because the audience knows that English is already his first language, even if famously he’s also fluent in his father-tongue German. One could argue that the cerebral results match Kurzel’s intentions, but they also hold back the inherent appeal of the material that has lasted for ages. His Scottish accent is a bit wobbly in places, but that’s nitpicking when you consider how much else he brings to the role – swagger, a credible military-man’s mien and layers of self-doubt that rupture the cocky, tyrannical surface by degrees once he’s grabbed the crown. But there’s also a sneering streak of cruelty that rubs out any nobility to his plight; he’s almost literally a man possessed by a demonic ambition, a point underscored by a slyly hilarious steal from Paranormal Activity at one point.

It’s not perhaps a very subtle version, and I felt that Kurzel should have perhaps worked more closely with Fassbender with the contours of his speeches, and shown the painful mind-changing and nerve-losing in the early stages. Kurzel’s d.p. from Snowtown, Adam Arkapaw (who also shot Animal Kingdom, a gangland tale of another sort), exploits the inherent pitilessness of high-definition to enhance the immediacy, while the collaboration between production designer Oz-born Fiona Crombie and Brit costume designer Jacqueline Durran produces some breathtaking visual textures. In Kurzel’s defense, the Scottish play seems peculiarly cursed on celluloid — both Orson Welles and Roman Polanski have also struggled to transfer the immediacy and vitality felt on stage to the big screen — and the young filmmaker comes closer than either of them to modernizing its appeal. Although the outdoor locations are all Scotland, exploiting the eerie treeless landscapes for their full desolate potential, Crombie makes inspired use of Ely cathedral and its soaring vaults and massive spaces for Macbeth’s royal abode.

Production companies: A Studiocanal, Film4 presentation of a Film4 in association with DMC Film, Anton Capital Entertainment, Creative Scotland of a See-Saw Films production Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Hayman, Maurice Roeves, Ross Anderson, James Harkness

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