CAST: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter, Moses Ingram, Ralph Ineson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Stephen Root, Brian Thompson, Richard Short
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
BASICALLY…: The Macbeths (Washington and McDormand) plot to seize the throne and its power for themselves…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
There’s nothing like a dark, gloomy and murderous Shakespeare adaptation to kick-start the New Year, but while this may be my second viewing of director Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth – the first review was conducted back in October, when it premiered as the Closing Film of the BFI London Film Festival – there’s still a fair bunch to talk about with this fantastic movie which makes it all the more vital to begin 2022 revisiting.
If you’ve ever had an English or Drama class at school, chances are you already know the story – but just in case, it’s set in medieval Scotland where Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) comes across some witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter), who relay a prophecy that he will very soon succeed current monarch Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) to become King. Egged on by his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), the Lord is driven to murderous acts in order to secure the throne, which of course leads to a state of madness, paranoia, vengeance and guilt for the scheming couple and those around them.
As mentioned in the previous review for this movie, The Tragedy of Macbeth’s strengths lie in how rooted it is in its theatrical origins, with a heavy emphasis on Shakespeare’s original dialogue over showing certain events that are only relayed through words and not visuals. However, there is also a rather eerie sense to the theatricality, with Joel Coen incorporating a type of mise-en-scène that makes surprisingly creepy use of its minimalist soundstage sets. Many of the scenes carry a noticeable quietness as the characters speak the classic dialogue in the foreground, even in scenes set outdoors where nary a howl of wind can be heard, all of it feeling like you are watching a stage instead of a wider cinematic spectacle. In response, the supernatural and psychological elements of the story are amplified by how other-worldly the scenery appears to be, because there is a consistent sense of unease that Coen establishes throughout which leaves you feeling very creeped out by the acts and decisions of these characters, like you’re watching an artsy horror film in the tradition of Hereditary (an appropriate comparison, because that film’s distributor A24 also handles this film along with Apple).
Much has already been made about the excellent performances of both Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as that scheming Macbeth couple, but a truly hypnotic turn by Kathryn Hunter as the three (or is it?) witches also deserves to be part of the wider conversation. As in the play, the witches have limited screen time here, but Hunter makes the most of it with a memorably crazed rendition that neatly fits into the traditional style of its director. Joel and brother Ethan – the latter sitting this one out – often work in some memorably eccentric performances into their films, and the same can be said with Hunter whose schizophrenic approach, with a twinge of contortionism thrown in for good measure, creates a mysterious presence where we’re never entirely sure if it’s genuine or just another crazy hallucination. The mystery is further solidified when we later see Hunter play an elderly gentleman who interacts with other characters, which Coen interestingly positions as a chance for the witch(es) to observe the action that they have foretold to Macbeth and his associates, giving the character – and by extension the performance – much greater ubiquity than Shakespeare originally wrote. While Washington and McDormand are (rightfully) earning the lion’s share of attention with current awards pundits, I wouldn’t rule out Kathryn Hunter’s incredibly unique turn as a potential wildcard.
As before, The Tragedy of Macbeth impresses with its theatrical simplicity and straightforward interpretation of the text, but with the intense addition of stark black-and-white cinematography, minimalist sets and costume design, and a rather eerie mise-en-scène that makes the darker elements of the story feel so much more expressionistic and artful in their execution. It’s certainly not what you might expect from hearing about a Coen brother doing Shakespeare, and that’s entirely a good thing; by sticking faithfully to the Bard’s original words, but with dashes of his own oddball sensibilities, Joel Coen has made an adaptation that stands out amongst other modern iterations, because it is so much more focused on the power and emotion that Shakespeare initially wrote rather than the lack of limitations that modern-day historical filmmaking can provide. It’s definitely worth a look, especially if you’re heavily into the Bard’s many classic works.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a strikingly straightforward adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play, with Joel Coen making eerie use of the minimalist soundstage designs to create a rather spooky interpretation, along with a hypnotic supporting turn by Kathryn Hunter as the three witches which stands strongly on its own alongside excellent leads Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.