Michael Fassbender’s career is unarguably the richest and most varied of any Irish leading man, one that sees the 38-year-old Irish actor move with impressive ease between superheroes and Shakespeare. The reason is simple; he’s probably the most versatile screen actor that Ireland produced. Cahir O'Doherty takes in Fassbender’s latest performance in the Game of Thrones-style bard for our times version of Macbeth.
It’s also a timely reminder of his remarkable versatility. The German-born, Co. Kerry-raised actor has played a mutant villain in X-Men, an Irish Republican in Hunger, a maniacal robot in Prometheus, a sadistic slave keeper in 12 Years a Slave and even Steve Jobs in the film of the same name. Clearly there is nothing he cannot turn his hand to.
Set in 1057 in Scotland, in Macbeth the 38-year-old star plays a ruthlessly ambitious lord who strikes out first and asks the hard questions later, with predictably tragic results.
Produced by Iain Canning, who won a producing Oscar for the The King’s Speech in 2010, Macbeth recounts the story of the murderous rise of the real life king who ruled Scotland at the start of the last millennium, inspiring Shakespeare to write his famous tragedy over four centuries later.
From its opening frame there is no question that Oscar nominee Fassbender as the mysterious and power-mad warrior and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as his endlessly scheming wife are a match made in cinematic heaven.
For Canning there was also no question who would play the tragic king. Fassbender was his only choice.
“He’s got an incredible intensity and the Shakespeare sort of bubbles through him like he was born to play that role. We couldn’t really see it being so centered and so emotionally complex with anyone else,” Canning said.
How much are you prepared to sacrifice in exchange for a little power? That thorny question was asked by the Greeks and later by Shakespeare and later still, I suppose, by Donald Trump.
The question never really goes away. How much is all the heartache worth, and all the inevitable betrayals, just so you can sit at the top desk and bark the orders that you’ve been dreaming of giving?
To a certain kind of man (or woman) it seems to be worth practically everything. No sacrifice is too large, no loss too great, in order to wear the golden crown and sit on the golden throne. If these are the sorts of questions that keep you up at night then Macbeth will be right up your street.
When he’s onscreen Fassbender is at all times a hypnotic presence, effortlessly carrying the film and fleshing out his conscience stricken character as he wades ever deeper into a mire of his own making.
The film, directed by Australian auteur Justin Kurzel, is literally steeped in blood. Battle scenes open and close the film and are conducted in a red mist; murders are explicitly filmed and often shockingly savage.
For Kurzel, Macbeth is also clearly a meditation on human capacity for evil, asking hard questions like where does it come from, what can stop it, or can it ever be stopped?
Filmed on the Isle of Skye, Macbeth looks so boggy and rain soaked that it easily conveys the lost medieval world of its title character. But this authenticity at times turns out to be a mixed blessing: Cotillard at one point disappeared up to her neck in the bog while filming.
At other times the deep Scottish accents of some of the characters makes the dialogue hard to follow, even in state of the art surround sound audio, where every church bell or snapping twig can be heard in larger than life stereo.
But at all times Macbeth looks terrific, with lavish attention paid to location, costume, makeup, sets and atmosphere, helping to create a perfectly realized world and convey its chief obsessions. But it’s Kurzel’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide bleakness that makes the film feel claustrophobic as often as it is compelling.
Some choices are a real puzzle. The three witches whose prophecies spur Macbeth into action look like a cross between an aging Gothic rock group and an early Amish sect. Rarely do they evoke the terrifying supernatural powers that make the audience wonder why Macbeth listens to them.
There are other jarring moments. King Duncan’s son Malcolm, played by Irish talented up and comer Jack Reynor, 23, has every reason to suspect Macbeth in the murder of his adored father, but instead he offers an inexplicably placid face to the world, biding his time for months in a way that is hard to understand.
Critics have already lavishly praised Fassbender and Cotillard’s towering performances (and that praise is richly deserved) and Kurzel’s atmospheric film is itself a marvel to behold, but the characters in this film are often overtaken by events, and that’s fatal to their stature as tragic figures.
When good people do bad things they become bad people. That fact we understand as soon as Macbeth and his wife commit murder for their own advancement.
In a particularly well-judged moment, Cotillard’s makeup at court echoes Macbeth’s war paint on the battlefield, suggesting that peace and war are becoming two sides of their endless battle for dominance.
But this film allows them very little time indeed to go from good to bad to dying or dead, even for a famously short script that offers great speeches, great battles and an impressive body count.
Barely has the crown been placed on Macbeth’s head before it and he are torn apart by remorse and recriminations. If the wages of sin are death, it’s gotten remarkably impatient.
“There’s just so many endless versions you can do and various interpretations of it which is very encouraging and also kind of depressing because I would walk away thinking God, there’s another thousand ways that could have been done,” Fassbender told the press last week, conscious of how important it is to get the tone right.
“It’s not one of those texts where you can sort of go in, look at it in the morning before and sort of wing it. It’s definitely something that I just spent many hours at home practicing and getting comfortable with.”
Fassbender certainly doesn’t wing it, turning in an all-electric performance that will further enhance his stature as one of the world’s most in-demand leading men.
The resultant film runs 1:53, but it seems to conclude at a clip. Moments after Macbeth meets the fate that you don’t need sorcery to know is on the cards for him from the very beginning, a young boy takes up his fallen sword and races straight into the blood red battle field, eager to play the same brutal game of thrones that devoured the last player.
Why do they expend so much effort in pursuit of earthly power and wealth that is, after all, so fleeting the film asks? When all the world’s wealth and power can’t save Macbeth from his own mortality, or the consequences of his own foul deeds.
It’s a question that’s as relevant now, and this relentlessly bleak film knows it.
Macbeth opens Friday, December 4.