Story still powerful after 400 years

Double, double, toil and trouble. The new adaptation of Macbeth is a horrifying reminder why Shakespeare still has the power to affect audiences four hundred years after his death. Most everyone knows the play is the tragic story of Lord and Lady Macbeth’s ambition, but the enthralling gambit in director Justin Kurzel’s effort is to paint ambition as the food they eat when grief has taken every other reason to go on.

Some moments felt too gut-wrenching to bear. That’s the way the play was written, with madness and desolation at the heart of the tale of a man who murders his king to win the crown.

Somewhere in my years of English major-oriented education, I managed to miss The Tragedy of Macbeth entirely—I studied everything from the big tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear), the middling (Antony and Cleopatra), and the obscure (Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus), and yet for some reason, none of my teachers or professors broke out Macbeth for our perusal. Superstitious theater denizens even avoid talking about “The Scottish Play” by name, due to a centuries-old fear of a curse. At any rate, when I saw that a Macbeth film with intriguing casting was getting good buzz, I jumped at the chance to finally see what all the fuss was about.

Oh my.

If I could have walked out of the theater and still done justice to this review, I would have. Not because the film is bad, or that I even regret seeing it, but because some moments felt too gut-wrenching to bear. That’s the way the play was written, with madness and desolation at the heart of the tale of a man who murders his king to win the crown—all because his wife urged him to do it. Would a well-performed stage version affect me as strongly as this one did? Possibly, but the stage version would have to boast world-class acting talent to compare.

Michael Fassbender plays the titular Macbeth with the manic intensity of another great cinematic king: Peter O’Toole as Henry II in both Becket and A Lion in Winter. Scenery is chewed, great lines are uttered, and even the quiet scenes before the madness fully descends hold the same power to catch an audience in the throat. From the moment the good, honorable Macbeth encounters the famous witches the play calls “the weird sisters,” and hears the prophecy that he will become king, the wild, haunted despair never quite leaves his eyes.

As Lady Macbeth, Marion Cotillard portrays a woman who hones grief into a single-minded determination to see her husband crowned king. The film’s prologue—a wordless scene that doesn’t come from Shakespeare, but that the writers and director gleaned from hints in the play’s dialogue—puts a clarifying spin on her ambition, informing her entire character trajectory. Even the famous, fruitless attempt to scrub her hands clean of blood takes on a completely new light. In Cotillard’s hands, Lady Macbeth gradually becomes a more sympathetic figure than her tortured husband.

The marriage between 11th century Scotland’s violence and today’s slow-motion blood-n-guts makes this a grisly watch. Shots of the Highlands, impermeable fog, and the confusion of smoky firelight make for arresting cinematography, but one wishes the film didn’t relish the spray of blood quite so much. And yet violence is ugly. When shown as it really is—not glossed over by a tasteful cutaway or discreet angle—Macbeth’s madness makes an awful sort of sense. Without it, would the horror of murder be so visceral?

With a few days’ distance from the movie, I am glad I stayed for the whole thing. Gritty, yes, upsetting, certainly, Macbeth does what any good tragedy should do: drag the viewer into confronting human folly and the unforeseen, unavoidable consequences of our own bad choices. Bravo.

Macbeth is rated R for graphic violence and a sex scene (without nudity).