What's Done Cannot Be Undone: Macbeth, a Review

Each generation sets forth a group of actors who will introduce and recreate the work of Shakespeare for a new audience. This is our gift, that we are never allowed to forget the accomplishments of this great storyteller, that his stories will continue to live on in the world, like myth or legend, somehow blending with history and becoming real.

In 2015 Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard took up the mantle of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of the Scottish Play. Without being too bold, I would argue that this and future generations have received their Macbeth and the benchmark by which they will judge all other adaptations and performers.

For those who don’t know, Macbeth stands as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, telling the story of a noble, war-torn thane, and his ambitious wife who urges him to commit murder and treason so that he may become king of Scotland. Initially, his conscience and fears prohibit him from following through with their crime, but soon Lady Macbeth convinces him totally, and thus they spiral into madness.

This film, though not entirely faithful to the original text, is impressively accurate, and though Macbeth was conceived on the stage, it lends itself beautifully to the expansive landscapes of Scotland. The cinematography is a work of art in and of itself, often working with very limited color pallets, offsetting black figures against red, blue, or yellow air. Each shot seems to have a careful and deliberate composition, appearing at times like a photograph.

Even sound is taken seriously, using perfect silence to powerful effect, and instrumentation as a subtle means of playing your nerves.

Though the film is beautiful, it is a dangerous, desolate, and frequently brutal beauty. The landscape becomes a character of its own, and you realize just how closely these characters live with the elements.

Irish-German actor, Michael Fassbender brings both complexity and simplicity to his role. You see inside the mind of Macbeth, and it is a credit to the actor that his speech seems natural and self-originating. His portrayal is an intimate one, with the typically projected and externalize soliloquies delivered instead as internal monologues and private musings; This has the effect of making Shakespeare’s language accessible, while also revealing the organic, humanity of the character. Macbeth as a character arch is the epitome of descent. We meet him as an honorable, self-sacrificing man who has the respect and loyalty of his men, and then we see his sanity chipped away until he commits a crime that defies his very nature, putting him on a path on which he cannot stray.

“What’s done cannot be undone.”

French actor, Marion Cotillard brings a new, one might say neglected, vulnerability to the role of Lady Macbeth. A character who is typically portrayed as pure selfish ambition and malice now seems fully formed. She is frigid and unnerving in one scene, and entirely breakable the next.

As a duo, Fassbender and Cotillard present complex, nuanced characters without ever trying to moralize them.

More than anything, we see the toll and consequence of their actions, and whatever inner demons motivated them. Macbeth, having spiraled so far out of control and sunk so profoundly into madness, learns to take solace in his insanity, even seeming emancipated by it. The grave, honorable man at the start of the film, has given way to a darkly humored villain, yet we never forget his honor because you can still see glimpses of it.

Lady Macbeth, being the orchestrator of this tragedy, soon sees her husband transported to a place she cannot reach, and for which she is responsible. The raw ambition of the beginning shrinks from the monster it has created, yet “What’s done cannot be undone.”

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