Macbeth – a movie that explores violence, madness and ambition

Justin Kurzel's modern version of the classical play starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is truly a masterpiece.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth. Courtesy StudioCanal
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“Everyone has a history with Macbeth,” says director Justin Kurzel. “Everyone owns it.”

This is his way of trying to avoid getting weighed down by the history of “the Scottish play” – Shakespeare’s tragedy that has already been brought to the big screen by such titanic directors as Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa.

Now comes Kurzel’s version, starring Michael Fassbender as the titular general who would be king, and Marion Cotillard as his scheming, ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth.

“All three of us were petrified, of the weight of doing it,” says Kurzel, “of me being an Australian and coming to the UK and doing such a revered piece”.

While it's only his second film – after 2011's serial-killer tale Snowtown – at least English is his first language. French-born Cotillard had to deal with performing Lady Macbeth in her second tongue. "I felt a lot of pressure," she admits. "She's not an easy person to share a part of your life with."

Literary pressures aside, the production also had to endure one of the worst winters on record while shooting on the outskirts of London and in Scotland, on the Isle of Skye.

“It was intense,” says Fassbender. “It was hailstorms, snow, ice.”

He particularly praises the dedication of the extras on the set.

“They came and they stood in the rain for 10 hours,” he says. “I was thinking: ‘Oh God, nobody is going to turn up tomorrow.’ But they were phenomenal.”

The background performers were not the only ones who had to endure the torrid weather conditions.

“Marion disappeared down a bog,” says Kurzel. “She just fell into it. That’s what that world is – it’s unforgiving. It completely intimidates you. It just gave a texture to the film and makes the characters feel more desperate and dwarfs them.”

There was a reason this era is known as the dark ages, he says, adding: “You could very easily get taken by the land, you could very easily get taken by a war”.

Kurzel’s film very much concentrates on Macbeth as a soldier brutalised by years on the battlefield, says Fassbender. “This is a guy who is dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” says Kurzel.

“Even when I was studying at drama school, it never occurred to me and it’s so obvious. Shakespeare talked about it. He had the foresight back then to describe what these soldiers must’ve gone through. Soldiers came back after World War I, and none of us in the world knew how to describe it. But Shakespeare knew.”

As for Cotillard, she admits she has always been fascinated by Lady Macbeth and “how fears and extremely deep frustration can lead you to madness, to evil”. The character is oft portrayed as the arch-manipulator who pushes her husband towards murdering King Duncan (David Thewlis) after a prophecy suggests Macbeth will one day be king.

Cotillard worked with the idea that she was bereft after losing a child – a tragedy only alluded to in the original text.

Fassbender admits that’s Macbeth’s PTSD and his wife’s emotional fragility were two crucial keys to unlocking the characters, inspiring them towards their “heinous” crime.

“They’ve lost a child,” he says. “He’s never there. They haven’t had a chance to mourn together, be together, because they’re campaigning all the time. Maybe gone a whole year.

“And so, in a way, it’s about loss. This play is about loss and about what people do to try to regain what was taken away from them.”

The more Kurzel looked, the more he found inspirations. While editing Macbeth, he was also watching Breaking Bad – the hugely popular TV show starring Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a teacher-turned-drug lord.

“There’s something about that character – you know it’s not going to end well,” says Kurzel. “It was exactly like Macbeth – you’re seeing someone dismantle themselves and the end is near, and it’s so inevitable. You can’t do anything about it. I’m always attracted to those characters.”

It'll be intriguing to see whether his next film follows suit – he, Cotillard and Fassbender will reunite for the big-screen spin-off from the smash-hit video-game franchise Assassin's Creed.

Fassbender will star as a modern-day descendant of a line of assassins, who is forced to relive, through the use of modern technology, the experiences of one of his deadly ancestors in 15th-century Spain.

In the meantime, Kurzel can rest assured that Macbeth is perhaps the true market leader when it comes to essaying violence, madness and ambition.

"I think Game of Thrones and all those other series are just copying Shakespeare," he says with a smile. "I'm presenting the original."

• Macbeth is in cinemas now