It's refreshing in this age of flashy big-budget flops (recent example: In the Heart of the Sea) to see an enormous film take on an intimidating subject and thrust a dagger of nearly perfect artistry through it. Screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, along with director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders), have deftly carved Shakespeare's great Scottish tragedy into the best kind of edge-of-your-seat Hollywood entertainment, while Michael Fassbender (as Macbeth) and Marion Cotillard (as Lady Macbeth) deliver breathtaking performances that elevate the film into rarefied territory.

The story should be familiar, if foggy, to anyone who was paying attention in high school English. Macbeth, the thane (sort-of-a-duke?) of Glamis, delivers an unlikely victory to the good king Duncan over the traitorous Macdonwald. Three "weird sisters" interrupt Macbeth's victory, however, with an unsettling greeting, referring to him as thane of Cawdor and noting that soon he "shalt be king hereafter!" When the first part of the prophecy comes true, Macbeth becomes consumed by the rest of the witches' words, an obsession that takes a dark turn when he—encouraged by his wife—takes matters into his own hands.

Fassbender delivers a flawless performance in which he stretches his emotional and physical range over the course of 113 minutes. Cotillard performs a perfect contretemps, gracefully skating just on the edge of hysteria throughout—a surprising feat, given the infamous subject she portrays. (Her "out, damn spot" monologue is an astonishing display of restraint: Her hands remain covered throughout.) The supporting cast comes through magnificently as well, particularly Sean Harris as Macduff, the growling foil to Macbeth's derailed ambitions.

Despite the brilliance of much of the acting, I suspect that the film will resonate mostly with audiences for its rich sensory landscape. Kurzel uses the rolling valleys and plains of England and Scotland as near-fantastical—yet fundamentally earthy and real—stages upon which he sets his characters. Special effects—mostly richly saturated colors and jarred motion techniques—enhance the filmmaker's fundamental material rather than distract from it. The score alone, by Jed Kurzel (the director's younger brother), is worth the admission price; it heaves and lolls and lays out a soft carpet upon which Shakespeare's creations clash and wail. The production design, by Fiona Crombie, is sheer delight as well, evoking all of the fantasies of Dark Ages Europe in roughly hewn wool and finely crafted steel without serving as an obtrusive, clumsy apparatus.

The stakes for such a film are curious. It hasn't been nearly as heavily marketed as other year-end big-ticket productions (one does not envy being released in the same season as Star Wars), suggesting low expectations by the studio, and the particular pieties that surround Shakespeare make any adaptation of his work—especially by A-list actors—a risk.

It's a paradox that thanks to his colossal stature in the pantheon of English letters, it's really quite easy to forget the sheer genius of Shakespeare's words. His deification by scholars and writers can have the effect of putting him into a separate box—the whole of English literature over here, and the Bard over there. I have little doubt that a sizable chunk of English scholars will roll their eyes at a Harvey Weinstein-funded take on this inimitable play, while theater snobs and purists will find much at fault with an adaptation. Yet the writers and director have done well to act boldly. For at least this hazy-memoried former English student, this film has reminded me why Shakespeare occupies the place that he does.

Macbeth
Directed by Justin Kurzel
With Fassbender, Cotillard
CCA Cinematheque
113 min.
R