Emerging from the fog of war, Denzel Washington‘s Macbeth and Bertie Carvel‘s Banquo encounter three witches on the battlefield. Hailing Macbeth as future king, Macbeth gets swept up by the witches prophecy. Further charged by Brendan Gleeson’s King Duncan to execute the Thane of Cawdor and assume his title, Macbeth believes the witches prophecy to be coming true. However, when Duncan publicly names his sickly son Malcolm as heir apparent, Macbeth feels slighted. Writing to his ambitious wife (an excellent Frances McDormand), she then sows the seeds in him for a plan that is truly dangerous in its scale of deceit…
… But hush, no more. Joel Coen has seen things done well.
Captured inside a deliberately claustrophobic frame, Joel Coen‘s The Tragedy of Macbeth is an excess of riches that no one should have any trouble feasting upon. Set within a limitless landscape that clearly nods towards German expressionist filmmaking, Coen slowly arranges Shakespeare’s pieces into battle formation.
Often walking straight towards camera and addressing you directly, Denzel’s Washington’s Macbeth has thankfully not been dressed in borrowed clothes. In stepping into a much-venerated role that has seen the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles (and more recently Michael Fassbender) take on, Washington’s Macbeth starts out as a garrulous soldier only to become a knowingly paranoid thug. Though set next to his souring milk of human kindness, Frances McDormand matches him as an arid Lady Macbeth. In a role that’s almost as coveted as that of Macbeth himself, McDormand’s star doesn’t hide its fire. Wisely avoiding the histrionics that the role can sometimes invite, her Lady Macbeth instead opts for a sandpapered sense of malice. Repeatedly pricking Macbeth’s manhood in the name of ambition, McDormand’s words doth murder his sleep and leave Washington to rage amongst the battlements. With cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel‘s shadows stabbing downwards from the sky, neither Stefan Dechant’s set nor Joel Coen’s staging offer Macbeth any room to manoeuvre.
Yet within this catalogue of mostly men, the two unseen jewels lie. Whereas Corey Hawkins‘s Macduff sadly stumbles through his dialogue, neither Alex Hassell as Ross nor Kathryn Hunter as the three Witches will suffer any foul whisperings here. Far from it. By finding the perfect meter, Hasell’s delivery is truly alive without being overly affected and Kathryn Hunter as the three witches devours words that have skipped across the tongues of others. Deliberately lingering upon their meaning whilst contorting her body to match their portentous intent, hers is a best-supporting actress Oscar nomination there for the conferring. That is if Hollywood should give it. The Tragedy of Macbeth verily has riches aplenty but she clearly shines the brightest amongst its company.
Ultimately, moving towards its end, blood will have blood and any student of Shakspeare will be well aware of what little comfort the third act holds – but hush, no more. Coen has seen things done well and whilst the purgatory state of stage-meets-cinema might be a challenge for younger audiences, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a film that harbours no lack of ambition. The fight sequences are as lithe and deadly as Carter Burwell‘s score, all of which makes Joel Coen‘s distillation of Macbeth a keen one.
Whilst Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth (to use the words of Kenneth Tynan describing Olivier, “shook hands with greatness”), Joel Coen has fashioned a much leaner, more stylistic vehicle for some of the best actors available to play in. Without any concern as to whether they might fail, he has allowed them to melt what seems corporal into the wind and deliver a Macbeth that no one ever saw coming – but you can on AppleTV+.