Don’t mess with the classics, they say. But when something has been through as many iterations as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who knows what the definitive “not to be messed with” version is anyway? Even in the film canon, versions of this story go back as far as the early 20th Century. You’ve got Orson Welles’ traditionalist 1948 version, Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese transposition Throne of Blood (1957), Roman Polanski’s visceral 1971 film and Geoffrey Wright’s updated Australian take from 2006. Even just in the last few years, we’ve had the National Theatre’s 2013 version with Kenneth Branagh and Justin Kurzel’s stunning Macbeth (2015). Now storied director Joel Coen takes on this storied tale in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
As Macbeth adaptations go, this has to be up there with the best of them. Coen – working this time with his wife Frances McDormand rather than brother Ethan – crafts a highly stylised but still compelling tale of murder and madness. Of course, the source material is timeless, but Coen makes some stunning directorial choices to give this version an edge. That includes shooting the film in black-and-white and in what seems to be the boxy Academy ratio. He also uses sound-stages and constructed sets to give the film a stage-like look (the director described it in interviews as “untethered from reality”).
The film opens at an encampment where King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) nervously awaits word of a crucial battle with Norse invaders. Word soon comes that, just when things seemed darkest, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) turned the tide. Overjoyed, Duncan decrees that Macbeth is to be given the title Thane (lord) of Cawdor in place of the traitorous former thane. Macbeth and Banqou meanwhile are returning from the battle. On a desolate beach, they meet three mysterious figures (all played by Kathryn Hunter), supposedly witches. They declare three things – that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor; that he will be king; and that while Banquo will not be king, his heirs will be.
When the pair reach Duncan and hear the news that Macbeth has been dubbed Thane of Cawdor, the witches’ prophesy seems to be confirmed. When Macbeth confides this to Lady Macbeth (McDormand), the pair hatch a fiendish plan. Duncan is to visit them the next day. They decide to murder him and seize the throne. And although their plot succeeds initially, it wreaks far greater havoc than they ever imagined.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a masterclass in chiaroscuro, the art of light and shadow. DOP Bruno Delbonnel (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) has a field day with carefully composed shots making exquisite use of geometry and perspective. At times the film resembles the best of the German expressionist style (see Fritz Lang, for example). Indeed, the spare staging and evident artificiality recall the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Coen also (wearing his screenwriter’s hat) digs into the text, finding often-overlooked insights. These include the play’s frequent allusions to birds, something Coen renders brilliantly on-screen.
With a powerhouse cast like this, you can expect the performances to be impeccable – and they are. Denzel Washington (The Little Things) once again delivers in the central role. His portrayal of the character’s frequent rages is stunning, but his power comes in the quieter moments. Frances McDormand (Nomadland) matches it with Washington as the equally scheming Lady Macbeth. Alex Hassall (Suburbicon) excels in a beefed-up role as the duplicitous Ross. Corey Hawkins (In the Heights) is fine but under-used as McDuff, as is Bertie Carvel (Dalgliesh) as Banquo – outrageous eyebrows notwithstanding. But perhaps the most arresting performance comes from Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) as the witches.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is another fine entry into the long history of this tale on film. Coen delivers everything you’d expect – and a lot more – via his clear vision and the fantastic performances of his cast. Although I think I (just) prefer Justin Kurzel’s version, this is a stunning, stylish and compelling rendering of the dark story.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – movie review
- Nomadland – movie review
- The Equalizer 2 – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television