Although not exactly emotionally resonant, Joel Coen’s adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s seminal texts is as dark and brooding as they come, a unique balance of theatrical artifice and cinematic vision.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell
Plot: A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power.
Awards: Nom. for Best Leading Actor – Drama (Golden Globes)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Power; Betrayal
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: The Projector
‘Macbeth’ is not just one of Shakespeare’s seminal texts, but has been envisioned for the big screen in different forms by filmmakers as diverse as Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski, and as recent as Justin Kurzel’s stylised piece in 2015.
It never gets old, and in The Tragedy of Macbeth, we see Joel Coen’s (in a rare solo effort without his brother Ethan) dark, brooding vision in near monochrome black-and-white, lensed skilfully by Bruno Delbonnel in his third collaboration with the director after Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth respectively—their performances are fairly reliable and showy at times when force and fury are needed.
The real star to me is Kathryn Hunter, playing not one but three witches who prophesise both glory and doom with nefarious disdain. The mood is solemn and ominous; ravens are frightening and a visual motif, much like the flying creatures in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).
“Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to Heaven or to Hell.”
I didn’t find the film to be emotionally resonant, or at least it didn’t quite haunt me as much as, say, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).
Still, Coen has a way with sound, particularly emphasising the recurring deep knocks that accompany scenes of psychological disturbance or malice. Macbeth is cruel when it needs to be, but any bloodletting is always already foreshadowed.
I suppose most audiences who want to see this have already encountered the story in some form—so it would very much be an appreciation of the performances and the visual style, which is a unique balance of theatrical artifice and cinematic vision.
In fact, Coen’s direction is assured enough to straddle comfortably between the minimalism of the former and the grandeur, albeit in a contained way, of the latter.