A messed up Macbeth exposes the star’s limitations.
Director Justin Kurzel
Director Brian Helgeland
Don’t tell me that Michael Fassbender lacks range. He can do profound gloom, raging sorrow, flippant resignation… and have you seen his gentle melancholy? The man is a chameleon.
Fassbender is in fact one of the magnesium-flare presences of his generation, reliably arresting on screen even when, rarely, he appears in disastrous films. (He was the only person to emerge unscathed from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.) But if you watch several of his performances back to back, you’ll notice that he smiles only when the more obvious thing would be to scream.
He’s not a one-note actor, but he confines himself to a very specific portion of the emotional spectrum. This is why he’s exactly wrong for the title role of Australian director Justin Kurzel’s new version of Macbeth.
To be fair to Fassbender, no one could have saved this film. To be fair to Kurzel, anyone who sees it will agree that it has some astonishing moments. Notably the final face-off between Fassbender’s fey, gleefully despairing Macbeth and Sean Harris’ Macduff, which Kurzel sets in the orange-tinged smoke clouds of a burning forest.
The vivid wash of light, the drifting ash, with only the two human figures solid and certain: it’s a surreal evocation of the nihilistic paradoxes embedded deep in the play.
But as fundamental as nihilism and paradox are to Macbeth, using them as the basis for your editing approach is like using a forest fire to warm your castle. Kurzel reorders Shakespeare’s text to stress insanity and darkness, and he imposes a regimen of rapid cuts and shuffling points of view, with few long takes. The instability that should slowly devour Macbeth instead becomes inherent to his world from the outset; or to put it more simply, the film is a mess.
To put it simply, the film is a mess.
This is why no actor could have shone in this role under Kurzel’s direction. The reason Fassbender seems so stale in it is possibly also the reason Kurzel cast him: this Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard, intense and impressive, but left curiously adrift within the story) are grieving parents. In the opening scene, they bury a child. Shakespeare leaves room for this (Lady Macbeth’s famous “I have given suck” speech), but directors don’t usually run with it. So Fassbender, instead of entering as a triumphant general about to meet a moral crisis, enters staggering under an intolerable burden of loss.
Of course he does.
Is Fassbender allowing his talent to drain off into a narrowing rut? Consider the career of another prominent British actor — one who, as it happens, was born the same year, 1978. Tom Hardy is no more likely than Fassbender to appear as a happy-go-lucky romcom lead. His greatest role to date was as an ultra-violent lunatic, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson.
Earlier this year, he played a sensitive, yearning ultra-violent lunatic in the highly entertaining Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s beaten up Batman.
He’s played Heathcliff, the definitive British bad boy. (Fassbender, tellingly, has played Rochester, the less brutal of the Brontës’ two great contributions to the ranks of Men Your Mother Warns You About.)
But for all his investment in playing hard men, there’s a breadth to Hardy’s choices that gives each role a crucial little boost: if he gave you a parentally bereaved Macbeth, it wouldn’t feel like Tom Hardy making his usual Tom Hardy moves. There are no usual Tom Hardy moves.
Case in point: in Brian Helgeland’s gangster biopic Legend, the story of 60s London’s Kray twins, Hardy plays both brothers. One is a cool-headed businessman whose business happens to involve extortion and drugs. The other is a needy, thuggish psychopath.
As a study in self-destructive antiheroes, Legend can’t hold a candle to any decent production of Macbeth. Helgeland burdens his story with would-be-clever voiceover narration, and although the cinematography is eye-catching, the film has no real answer to the charge that it wants to glamorise the Krays while pretending to pass judgment on them.
But when you compare Legend to Kurzel’s Macbeth, it’s clear which is more interesting. Not to say more entertaining. Some of that is earned dishonestly: Helgeland is happy to present torture and vicious brawls as extreme sports extravaganzas. Most of it, though, is down to the fascination of seeing Hardy play two very different men at once.
It’s maybe a stunt; the characterisations are broad. But as stunts go, such a watchable one. And you have to ask — if you put two Michael Fassbender characters in the same film, would anyone be able to tell which was which?
Macbeth is in cinemas nationwide now. Legend opens in NZ cinemas on Thursday 15th October.