The Tragedy of Macbeth

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Tragedy of Macbeth
dir-scr Joel Coen
prd Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, Robert Graf
with Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Kathryn Hunter, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Stephen Root
release US 25.Dec.21,
UK 14.Jan.22
21/US A24 1h45

gleeson hawkins melling
london film fest

Is it streaming?

washington and mcdormand
Joel Coen takes a strikingly stylised approach to Shakespeare's Scottish play, shooting it in the style of a 1950s movie adaptation with grand-scaled stage sets and glowering black and white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. It looks spectacular, and the fine ensemble cast throw themselves fully into the dialog and action. Although the over-egged sound mix muffles their words, the emotionally energetic performances give the film several strong kicks.
After triumphing in battle, Lord Macbeth (Washington) is told by three witches (Hunter) that he will become king, and his fellow general Banquo (Carvel) will father a line of kings. When Macbeth informs his wife (McDormand), she suggests that he murder King Duncan (Gleeson) and take the crown now. Reluctantly he does, and Duncan's two sons (Melling and Helm) flee the country, leaving the throne to Macbeth. But he and his wife are consumed by paranoia, killing anyone who threatens them. And as guilt sets in, a civil war rises up to unseat them.
Scenes are full of characters who take up sides for and against Macbeth, most notably the sneery Ross (Hassell) and the rival lord Macduff (Hawkins). The dark emotions of the plot engulf everyone in the story, and Coen deploys the superb actors to dig into their feelings, as loyalties swerve into vengeance. It's a notoriously brutal story, with women and children among the victims, and this version particularly zeroes in on the high cost of ruthless ambition, not least in the mental health of the aggressors.

Washington adds an underlying gentleness to Macbeth that's disarming, a man who isn't sure that he wants all this power and then doesn't like what he has to do to keep it. His inner turmoil is played beautifully. And McDormand brings Lady Macbeth's machinations to life with a subtle smirk, seizing an opportunity when she sees it. So her breakdown feels a bit more sudden. Among the supporting cast, the magnetic Hassell has the strongest role as the unflinching Ross, while Carvel and Hawkins adeptly earn our sympathies.

The film features a number of jaw-dropping moments that inventively reinterpret the play while keeping it a fairly straightforward adaptation. Spine-tingling visual touches also add interest, boosting the scale of a film that looks like it was shot entirely on a soundstage with lots of mist, impeccably designed sets and costumes, and clever effects work. Shakespeare's universal themes come through with force, although Coen misses the chance to perhaps find some more specific contemporary resonance.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 17.Oct.21 lff

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall