The Tragedy of Macbeth
Photograph: Courtesy of Apple TV+
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The Tragedy of Macbeth

5 out of 5 stars

Joel Coen's first solo film is a bloody feast for the eyes and the ears

Dave Calhoun

Time Out says

This is the only time in almost four decades of movie-making that writer-director Joel Coen has made a feature without his brother Ethan. It’s also the first time that he’s adapted Shakespeare: the pair more often than not opt for original stories like The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis, although they won the best picture Oscar for the Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men in 2008 and they’ve never been afraid of remakes or homage, or a mixture of the two.

If Joel Coen had picked Shakespeare
s existential fratricide drama Hamlet for this first solo outing and first stab at adapting the playwright, alarm bells would have rung. Instead, he’s made this ravishing, shadowy, eerie and often gloriously weird monochrome take on Macbeth, and in doing so rescues the label ‘theatrical’ from being a dirty word when describing movies. It’s stage-bound in all the right ways, reminiscent of a much earlier cinema, when filmmakers barely stepped outdoors and wielded magic with shadow and light on soundstages. It’s short, sharp and savage.

Rendered with extreme creativity in blacks and whites and greys – there’s so much fog you can imagine this is set on a purgatorial cloud somewhere – The Tragedy of Macbeth sees Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand slip into the sort-of-medieval robes of theatre’s most famous murderous couple. Yet the filmmakers resist any concrete sense of time and place. If there’s a Scottish accent among the cast, I can’t recall one; the approach to character is to resist any pedestrian specifics of origin and to mix American and English voices, and to cast white and Black actors. The effect is to sidestep any obvious attempt at realism and also to set it firmly in a cinematic world, with the influence of Orson Welles clearly strong, as well as expressionist German silent films and Hollywood noir thrillers (one predatory scene in a field recalls the horror of The Night of the Hunter). It's all done with the required solemnity, but Coen is still having fun with received styles here, much in the same way that he and his brother have throughout their careers. Their familiar black comic humour might be muted, but it's here too, breaking through at a few appropriate moments.

Washington and McDormand play the Macbeths as equals, slightly desperate, slightly taken over by events, with the clock ticking on their ambitions as age envelops them. Madness grips – but it’s a dampened, subtle disease of the mind; muted, even relatable. They have smart allies in Bruno Delbonnel’s staggering photography, as well as the linear, cavernous set design and Carter Burwell’s intense score: their tragedy is embedded in the film’s overall tone and style as much as in their well-measured – and well-matched – performances.

There are so many moments where you feel your head nodding vigorously at a smart visual call made by Coen and his collaborators: the dagger in the ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ speech being the seductive handle to the door of the room where the fated King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) is sleeping; the reflection in water of the sole witch (a magnetic, strange, bendy Kathryn Hunter) in this version actually giving us two more witches, allowing for just one scene the presence of the three witches of the play; the rewarding work expected of us to imagine the horror of blood in this severe black-and-white world. It’s a visual feast that’s served with enormous respect for the essence of Shakespeare’s words, even though Coen has shaved the text so that it moves at a furious pace, with a sudden slap of an ending that feels entirely fitting. It’s a creepy, bone-shaking triumph.

The Tragedy of Macbeth premiered at the New York Film Festival. In US and UK cinemas this winter and streaming on Apple TV+ Jan 14, 2022.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Joel Coen
  • Screenwriter:Joel Coen
  • Cast:
    • Denzel Washington
    • Brendan Gleeson
    • Frances McDormand
    • Harry Melling
    • Ralph Ineson
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