Correction: An earlier version of this review omitted the E Street Cinema screening venue.
Michael Fassbender has gotten (deserved) raves for his prismatic, complicated portrayal of a ruthless and brilliant Steve Jobs in the film of that name. But if you want to see the actor at the top of his game, there’s another movie that showcases his genius with even more electrifying intensity.
“Macbeth,” from the Australian director Justin Kurzel, is powered by a title performance by Fassbender, in the role of Shakespeare’s murderous tragic hero, that is raw, searing and ferocious. This movie version of the Scottish play is worthy to be considered among the best film adaptations of the Bard.
But this is not your father’s “Macbeth.”
Opening with a short, wordless scene that is not in Shakespeare’s play — the details of which it would be a shame to reveal — Kurzel’s film signals early that it will not take a safe or familiar route to finding the heart of one of Shakespeare’s most popular dramas, both for study and performance. This prologue is not a throwaway scene: It adds a layer of psychological motivation to what follows, without corrupting it.
Purists need not worry. Although boldly and freely adapted for the screen by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, the “Macbeth” screenplay retains the muscular poetry of Shakespeare, just less of it, and shifted in ways that enhance the tale’s emotion without losing its intelligence.
Scenes that are only described in speeches in the stage play — including the initial pitched battle scene and, later, the gruesome deaths of Macduff’s wife and children — are shown in the film. And it succeeds in matching the raw, ropy power of Shakespeare’s wonderful language with striking, often brutal cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (“Lore”). “Macbeth” is a gorgeous film, filled with fog, fire and rocky cliffs.
The score (by the director’s brother, Jed Kurzel) is appropriately spare and stirring, using silence as a counterpoint to the sound and fury of the film’s tumultuous action. At times, all we hear is the click of pebbles, or the crackle of dying embers.
The story of an ambitious Scottish nobleman (Fassbender) who murders his king (David Thewlis) after a group of witches predicts his ascension to the throne is well known. But Kurzel tweaks it in ways large and small. There are four witches here — not three, as in the play — including a girl who never speaks. (It’s five, actually, if you count the infant that one of them seems to be carrying in a bundle.) And Fassbender’s Macbeth is far madder than his wife (Marion Cotillard), whose descent into derangement is one of the most tired tropes of the theater.
Fassbender has spoken in interviews of how his Macbeth is meant to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and given the barbarity of the fighting depicted in the film, it’s easy to believe. Whether the witches exist or are a figment of his tortured mind is unclear. Fassbender’s Macbeth is unhinged, in ways that are at once terrifying, deeply moving and all too recognizable to modern audiences.
This cinematic “Macbeth” possesses a terrible beauty, evoking fear, sadness, awe and confusion. Presented with the aesthetic of a dark comic book, it’s also a mournful masterpiece, rendering Shakespeare’s spectacle with all the sorrow and majesty that it deserves.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains brutal violence and brief sexuality. 110 minutes.