Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins
One might argue that the cinema needs another adaptation of Macbeth as much as it needs a retelling of the Batman origin story, but Joel Coen’s effort serves its director as much as it’s audience, and might be taken as a palette cleanser as he flexes on his own following over 30 years working with his brother Ethan.
The split can’t be that unamicable as Ethan’s wife Frances McDormand takes a central role as the conniving and duplicitous Lady Macbeth. Perhaps this amounts to a strike from a personal bucket list not shared by Ethan, and while little new is brought to the telling of Shakespeare’s tale (it all feels a little condensed, a little clipped), the methodology tilts formally to the greats of old. The Coens’ work has always been the province of knowing parody and pastiche, but working solo Joel Coen seems more sincere in his reverence.
Working within the frame of the classic Academy ratio, The Tragedy of Macbeth already exudes an olde worlde aura, but it is clear from the off that Coen covets the extreme austerity of Dreyer and Bergman. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel helps Coen to realise his empty, towering sets in stark monochrome, exaggerating the film’s grand hat-tip to the greats of German expressionism, from Murnau to Wiene. Together they shroud their actors in looming shadows, or else abandon them, exposed and defenseless, in unbound white-outs. Arches loom, battlements soar, castles wrought in chiaroscuro hover in the sky above clouds of roiling mist. It’s all exceedingly atmospheric and will no doubt lead to a clutch of award noms.
For the telling, Coen has corralled an impeccable cast. Denzel Washington, unsurprisingly, makes for an impressive Macbeth, though he’s not as blustery as one might well have imagined. Prone to utterance as opposed to projection, he draws from within a weariness and learned regret, as though he already knows damned well that following the soothsaying of the Wyrd Sisters (Kathryn Hunter) means stepped a doom-laden path from the first footfall. Along this road he is inexorably drawn, resigned to his fate and – by increments – increasingly angered at his own inability to swerve.
For her part, the aforementioned Hunter is among the film’s most remarkable players, contorting herself as though the witches’ spell is a bodily incantation, like the dances of Guadagnino’s Suspiria. She has only two scenes, of course, but she and Coen make them count in different ways. They are among the film’s most haunting encounters.
She’s not the only peripheral player making a significant impact. Corey Hawkins makes Macduff a clear-headed and righteous adversary for Macbeth, and their eventual sparring along the battlements is one of the film’s most thrilling and claustrophobic attractions. And, with only one scene, Moses Ingram impresses greatly as his Lady. Her is the sound and the fury most bewitching.
While keeping the running time to 105 minutes is appreciated in the main, it does feel as though Coen rattles through the framework of the story with a little haste, and the delivery of the bard’s words is often densely packed. Those who struggle to unpick his peculiarities of phrase are given no leeway. I’ll hold my hand up as among their number. I’ve always had a bit of a barrier when it comes to Shakespeare. The story’s ubiquity becomes its own saving grace.
Unlike Macbeth and his meddlesome witches, we know not what the future holds. Whether The Tragedy of Macbeth will become a brief sojourn into solo expression for Joel, or whether this is the start of a new path. With so many modern classics under his belt already, he didn’t particularly need to provide us with a statement of intent, and I’m not entirely sure that’s what’s offered anyway. Regardless of what’s in store – for us or the brothers Coen – this is an earnest s(w)erve that belays one master’s appreciation for another.