The Muse and the Modern Bard

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth gets a fascinating visual reinterpretation thanks to Justin Kurzel, an Australian neophyte with only one previous feature credit to his name.

Dec 16, 2015 at 12:14 pm
click to enlarge Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth gets a fascinating visual reinterpretation thanks to Justin Kurzel, an Australian neophyte with only one previous feature credit to his name (2011’s The Snowtown Murders). But his association with his Macbeth lead, Michael Fassbender, now extends to his next feature, the big-screen adaptation of the popular videogame Assassin’s Creed. Working from a script by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, Kurzel transforms the world of Macbeth into a hypnotic blur, a dreamscape where magic and insanity are merely opposite sides of the same well-worn coin. There is a rugged brutality in the battles and in every exchange between the characters. 

Sadly, though, the language, with its poetic familiarity, lacks the sharp intensity we’ve come to expect and appreciate from the great Bard. At times, it feels as if it has been neutered — turned into a blunt instrument by a need to reduce the story to its core — which is a shame when you consider having Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Duncan. Thewlis harnesses the magic and majesty of Shakespeare in his performance — the grand scope and the artful nuance of the language — but the rest wallow in Kurzel’s murky netherworld. 

I found myself longing, especially while watching Fassbender, for the exchanges to generate the energy captured in the fight sequences, which would rush headlong and then freeze just before flesh met steel, when time would become elusive and fluid. Shakespeare’s plays — all of the major works — have those moments, when he takes a common idea or sentiment and twists it and our expectations, creating new turns of phrase that we continue to adopt and adapt to our current social and cultural landscape, even after all these years. I wanted Fassbender to be the vehicle for that kind of transformative experience, and instead I got little more than a glorified action hero with more than a touch of madness.

Fortunately, the wicked insanity I sought had already emerged a few weeks ago when Fassbender brought the noise in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. This narrative, like modern-day Shakespeare in its framing by Aaron Sorkin (working from the Walter Isaacson book Steve Jobs), inserts us into three distinct days in the life of the visionary figure at the epicenter of the digital revolution. Product launches become the battleground for a war that is intensely personal and globally impactful.

As Jobs, Fassbender digs into the wounded soul of this great man, burning his way through pages of dialogue fraught with emotion and heady content. Jobs constantly fights with his team (over product concerns that could derail each launch), his family (questions of paternity dog him throughout) and his critics (is Jobs, a guy with no practical coding experience, a creative force or a circus ringmaster — or the wizard, in this case, who stands in front of the curtain and makes us believe in the magic?). 

Sorkin gifts Fassbender and the rest of the talented cast with words that erupt and spill forth like hot magma. At each product launch, we see the continuation of the same struggles, the same arguments, and at first glance it would appear that nothing changes for these people. They are stuck in a never-ending cycle, but tiny cracks of insight freeze before us. Sorkin shows us how the characters, picking at old scabs and opening up the soft wounds that still haven’t healed completely, create new psychological terrain. 

It is challenging writing, uncomfortable because it offers nothing easy or familiar to audiences and nothing relatably engaging. Jobs, while not evil or insane like Macbeth, is far from likeable. He is just short of being a monster, in some ways, but he gave the world a gift — a series of gifts that will keep on giving. You could argue that he is more akin to Shakespeare than even Sorkin. Language links the two writers, but Jobs and his impact is transformative on the scale of Shakespeare. His iconic products will inspire us far into the future.

You could say that Jobs dared “do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none” (Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII).

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