Of all the Bard’s work, Macbeth is the play that has frequently attracted filmmakers. This Shakespearean tragedy, a story that bleeds with ambition and greed if you cut it, has seen directors as diverse as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski tackle it. Most recently, Australia’s Justin Kurzel directed a 2015 feature-length version, an exquisite-looking rendering with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Now comes the turn of Joel Coen, with The Tragedy of Macbeth, a stark and stripped-back monochromatic take on “the Scottish play”.
Offering a robust turn, Denzel Washington stars as Macbeth, whilst Coen’s own wife, the formidable Frances McDormand, co-stars as Lady Macbeth. The text has been cut right back – with the film running at a crisp 105 minutes – but Coen effortlessly captures the essence of Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy. Lusting for power, the Macbeths plan to kill King Duncan (Brandan Gleeson) and the guilt and bloodshed that follows has the propulsion of a thriller. Coen taps right into this.
Notably, this is Joel’s first film with his brother Ethan at his side. Their films – Fargo, The Big Lebowski or No Country For Old Men, for example – have a very distinct voice. So it’s fascinating to see Joel Coen strike out on his own and create a film that feels light years away from a Coen Brothers production. While the Coens have shot in black-and-white before, for example, with The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels far more ‘arthouse’ than a Coen movie – an almost German Expressionist take, with shadows and light at play.
The film is shot, beautifully, by Bruno Delbonnel, the French DP who previously worked with the Coens on their anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, folk tale Inside Llewyn Davis and their Metro-set segment of portmanteau piece Paris je t’aime. Together with Stefan Dechant’s angular designs – reimagining Macbeth’s castle with a modernist sheen – it creates a nightmarish vision of 16th century Scotland. The contortionist-like performance of Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three witches, embodies this with every twist of her joints, a perfect expression of this unique take on one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic of plays.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is in cinemas and available on Apple TV+ from 14 January. For more details, click here.
Words: James Mottram