“My dearest partner of greatness,” Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) addresses his wife from the battlefield. In Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) reads the letter in a feverish whisper, electrified not just by the news of her husband’s victory but by the prophecy of the witches, who hail him as “king that shalt be.” It’s a love letter of sorts, awash with the affection and intimacy of a man sharing with his wife his deepest hopes and dreams for their future. It’s also, of course, a piece of political intrigue, for the “greatness” Macbeth promises her is their ascension to the throne. Before Macbeth has even returned home, Lady Macbeth is already plotting Duncan’s death.
The Macbeths are literature’s iconic power couple: She couldn’t be queen without him, but he would never become king without her. Though they openly court evil (“Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell”), justify murder, and descend into madness, the Macbeths retain an irresistible allure. This might be said for any number of power couples. Indeed, coming out now, the film calls to mind other political duos in the public consciousness, real and fictional—Frank and Claire Underwood, Peter and Alicia Florrick, Bill and Hillary Clinton. And there are older paradigms too: Ferdinand and Isabella, Antony and Cleopatra. Adam and Eve—ambitious for knowledge, conspiring against God—might be the original power couple.