DIRECTOR: Joel Coen

CAST: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Kathryn Hunter, Moses Ingram, Ralph Ineson, Brian Thompson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Alex Hassell, Stephen Root, Richard Short

RUNNING TIME: 105 mins

CERTIFICATE: TBC

BASICALLY…: Lord Macbeth (Washington) and his wife Lady Macbeth (McDormand) plot to seize power for themselves…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of The Tragedy of Macbeth was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021.

How many Shakespeare movies do we need? To quote Mean Girls, “the limit does not exist”, for while everyone the world over can recite the plots to the Bard’s plays like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and others like they’re part of the basic English language (which, in a way, they kind of are), movie adaptations are always going to find interesting new ways to recite centuries-old text in modern, or – in the case of The Tragedy of Macbeth – suitably old-fashioned style.

Director Joel Coen, here going solo without brother Ethan for the first time, goes all the way back to classical Hollywood cinema to tell his version of “the Scottish play”, not just by shooting it in black-and-while, but also filming the entire thing on a soundstage, and opting for minimalist set and costume design to keep the focus firmly on the storytelling and Shakespeare’s trademark dialogue. It is astonishing to witness, both in how remarkably nostalgic it looks but also in how it uses its stark visuals to tell a truly dreary tale of power and murder.

For those who never read the play in English class, The Tragedy of Macbeth follows heroic Scottish lord Macbeth (here played by Denzel Washington) who, following a battlefield victory for his King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), comes across a trio of witches (all played in contortionist schizophrenic fashion by Kathryn Hunter) who inform him that he shall one day be King himself. Motivated by the witches’ prophecy, as well as the goading of his ambitious and scheming wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), Macbeth ends up slaying Duncan in his sleep and assumes the throne when Duncan’s son Malcolm (Harry Melling) flees the scene. However, as the Macbeths struggle to come to terms with the brutal measures they have had to enact in order to hold their new position of power, the scene is also set for a decisive showdown between the insecure King and his nemesis Macduff (Corey Hawkins).

Unlike Justin Kurzel’s heavily visual 2015 adaptation with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the Lord and Lady Macbeth roles respectively, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is much more rooted in its theatrical origins, and that is meant as a strong compliment. Shakespeare’s dialogue is spoken almost verbatim (though the script itself is slightly abridged from the original text), meaning that the audience is often told, and not shown, important moments like Macbeth’s opening victory or the fate of a major character before the big climax, a practise you would often find in a stage production instead of a visual medium like film. Additionally, sets are largely stripped to their barest essentials (hallways in castles are eerily empty apart from the walls and pillars that support them), while costumes are also non-flashy and effects are rarely, if not scarcely, used to enhance certain scenery. With Bruno Delbonnel’s sharp and utterly gorgeous black-and-white cinematography coating over it all, the film is like you are watching Orson Welles direct one of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare productions, but Coen makes it work incredibly well for the screen, bathing itself in classical Hollywood techniques that shed light on old-fashioned filming styles while also incorporating a limited amount of modern-day tools to create an unnerving and claustrophobic atmosphere.

Though Joel Coen is the sole brother on this particular venture, you can spot light traces of his and brother Ethan’s trademark oddball humour here and there, like a humorously out-of-place line delivery or the rat-a-tat way in which certain characters converse with each other. Beyond that, though, The Tragedy of Macbeth has a starkly different Coen personality to it, different than most of the work that either brother attached themselves to, but that paves the way for an exciting new artistic voice to emerge from what we have become familiar with, and sets Joel Coen up as an interesting solo director with strong visual ideas behind familiar stories like this one. He also gets exactly the right kind of performances he wants out of material this strong, with both Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand delivering excellent turns as the tragic Shakespearian figures, at once faithful to the material but also finding interesting new ways to expand upon characters who have been studied by actors and scholars for centuries. Their turns are largely free from what audiences would normally consider typical for a Coen brothers movie, which can only be encouraging for Joel Coen as he strives to step out of a certain shadow and into his own as a sole creative talent.

As for how The Tragedy of Macbeth fares as an adaptation of the Scottish play itself, it is a faithful and, again, deeply traditional take on Shakespeare’s work. At 105 minutes, the film is not overlong (appropriate, given that the play is also the shortest Shakespeare tragedy), and it follows the plot and dialogue carefully and concisely, though again it is a slightly abridged version so don’t be too dismayed if your favourite obscure line or moment from the play doesn’t make it into the final cut here. It would not be surprising to see teachers in the near future use this film as a reference point when going over the original text in an English class, since it is bold and faithful enough to serve as a strong visual companion to the play itself (not to mention the fact that since it will be exclusively streaming on Apple TV+, the film will be extremely accessible to anyone with the correct login details).

It is a stunning piece of work, regardless; both a thorough and faithful Shakespeare adaptation, and a dazzling visual spectacle with stunning filmmaking qualities, The Tragedy of Macbeth is high-end Shakespeare cinema, perfectly blending old and new elements to make a timeless example of the Bard’s most accomplished plays.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a spectacular adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play by director Joel Coen, gorgeously shot using old-school filmmaking techniques such as stunning black-and-white cinematography and minimalist soundstage set designs, along with excellent lead turns by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand which make it a truly wicked adaptation.

The Tragedy of Macbeth will be streaming exclusively on Apple TV+ from Friday 14th January 2022.

It will also be released in select cinemas nationwide on Saturday 26th December 2021 (as of publication).

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