Jan implores us all to hail Macbeth in this new, dynamic adaptation from Joel Coen and his seasoned cast.
Joel Coen is by no means a young director. Denzel Washington, and Frances McDormand are not exactly the freshest faces in Hollywood. And yet, a mere six years since the last theatrical Macbeth, this trio has brought to the screen a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play that feels genuinely refreshing and bold.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is, perhaps unsurprisingly, incredible cinema. The picture is an uncompromising, visual feast, using its unique high-contrast black and white format, and the 4:3 size in the best possible way.
The story is familiar: persuaded by the Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter), the Scottish Thane Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) embark on a bloody journey to the throne of Scotland. Coen, who adapted the play to the screen, trims down Shakespeare’s drama into a brisk one hour and 45 minutes, yet still manages to fully bring to the screen all the key moments from Macbeth’s rise and fall from power.
Washington and McDormand are stellar in the titular roles. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is a powerful version of the character, often dramatically more intimidating than Macbeth himself. The supporting cast create a vibrant representation of Macbeth’s descent into madness, though one vital scene was somewhat compromised by the performance of the actor playing Macduff’s son. However, Kathryn Hunter does a stellar job playing not one, but all three of the weird sisters.
Yet the most striking part of the film are its incredible sets. It was filmed over the course of the pandemic, deliberately entirely on a set in Hollywood, in order to create haunting dreamlike sequences. Coen’s “Scotland” is a dark, nightmarish world, disassociated from real life. Macbeth’s castle is an expressionistic nightmare that looks like a brutalist medieval castle. Several scenes are set in a highly stylized version of a Highland heath, fashioned into a sort of lair for the three witches.
Yet despite it all, the film feels distinctly like a Coen production. The compactness of the story recalls 2018’s vignette-based Ballad of Buster Scruggs, while some of the castle scenes verge closely to the famous dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. Violence, a signature Coen element, and a vital element of the play, is used effectively, particularly in the regicide scene.
A lot of commentary around this film focuses around how much it borrows from old moviemaking, but I would go even further. Coen’s take on the story could be described as a further refined version of 1948’s Macbeth, directed by and starring legendary auteur Orson Welles. Mostly due to budget constraints at the time, Welles’ version is similarly humble in scale, and yet very sharp. Macbeth’s famous soliloquy after learning of his wife’s death in both versions is alike in its absolute desperation.
The Tragedy of Macbeth will make for an excellent outing with your parents when it will be released by A24 in cinemas over Christmas, or you can hold out to stream it a couple weeks later. In any case, the first movie to be directed by Joel Coen, without his brother Ethan’s involvement is a triumph, and makes it clear that the Coen factory still has a lot of fuel left in the tank.
The Tragedy of Macbeth premieres in cinemas on 25 December, and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on 14 January 2022.