Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Joel Coen
Closing the London Film Festival 2021, Joel Coen is flying solo with a star-packed version of The Tragedy of Macbeth that looks to noirish and Scandinavian filmmaking in its presentation of portentous action. Shot in stylised black and white, it merges stage and cinema approaches to create a mist-shrouded hinterland, a symbolic purgatory that both suits and sometimes overshadows Shakespeare’s thriller about power and destiny.
After defeating Scotland’s enemies on the battlefield, Macbeth and his friend Banquo receive a visitation prophesising their future. When events start to come true, Macbeth and his wife grasp the opportunity to kill King Duncan and seize the throne. But holding on to power proves slippery and, as his enemies gather, Macbeth’s tyranny begins.
Coen’s choice of frame along with Stefan Dechant’s production design really suits the looming fear sewn into Shakespeare’s tale. It borrows its sinister use of light and shadow as well as the effect of scale and height from films like The Seventh Seal and, more recently, Bait and The Lighthouse to bring a visual distinctiveness to this latest screen version that is filled with unfussy sleek lines, architectural simplicity and crisp images of the power that Macbeth seeks.
But there is also a notable strain of 1940s and 1950s soundstage theatricality in the exterior design of craggy huts and wind-bent trees that surround Dunsinane, a soulless and treacherous place. Yet, here and there, it feels like those BBC studio versions of Shakespeare from the 1970s that lasted many generations of schoolchildren with their overly declamatory style, the grandiosity of it a little detached from the lifeblood of what is quite savage material.
And that is where The Tragedy of Macbeth is less certain, in knowing quite where to place its characterisation. That Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is merely inspired by the witches and instead allows his ‘vaulting ambition’ to run riot is clear and valid, yet the wavering purpose and undulating character arc that make Macbeth such a complex and fascinating monster are too simplified. Giving the protagonist a flat certainty as Washington does takes away some of the precise psychology that Shakespeare creates to explore the corrupting effect of power.
Coen’s decision to reorientate Alex Hassell’s Ross is an excellent one, asking important questions about the true nature of court authority, and Hassell – a fine Shakespeare actor on stage – becomes a decisive, lurking presence in a way that adds a new edge to the material and emphasises the decisiveness of human actions rather than fate or magic in driving events.
Frances McDormand makes Lady Macbeth the force in their marriage, a calmer conspirator than her husband, but she too is a little stranded by the singular interpretation of the couple. Surrounded by a collection of recognisable American stars including Corey Hawkins as a fierce Macduff and British and Irish theatre actors Kathryn Hunter’s excellent witches, Harry Melling’s Malcolm and Bertie Carvel as Banquo this is an impressive ensemble piece.
Running at only 1 hour and 45-minutes and necessarily shorn of many of the speeches – although not the tedious porter – The Tragedy of Macbeth doesn’t quite make the most of Shakespeare’s material, but Coen’s visual approach is both memorable and accomplished.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is screening at the London Film Festival.