- Colin Fraser
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
FOUR STARS The Scottish Play gets a Coen brother treatment in this highly stylised adaptation of Macbeth. DRAMA US #MACBETH
Starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson
Never one to shy from the new, Joel Coen (the director behind disparate projects such as FARGO, HAIL CAESER! and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) has now turned to Shakespeare. Rather than pick a match for his notorious dry-wit, he’s gone full tragedy as the name implies. And they don’t come much more tragic than The Scottish Play.
He’s re-partnered with familiar names, his wife Frances McDormand notably who as co-producer has given Denzel Washington one of his best roles in years. They’ve resisted any temptation to go full Game Of Thrones in reimagining one of Shakespeare’s most blood thirsty plays. In choosing to film in monochrome with a 4:3 ratio on one of the most stylised sound-stages since Captain Kirk fought polystyrene rocks, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is as far from contemporary, blood soaked films as you can get. Think Bergman with a twist of Lynch.
Imagine a castle designed by Escher with long, crisp corridors and tall sweeping arches that have been illuminated by blinding arc-lights. It’s Spanish Mission meets Gothic horror in Los Angeles of the 1920s, then moved to a medieval Scottish moor. With polystyrene rocks. It lays siege to your imagination and forces you directly into the matters at hand: Macbeth and his wife plot to steal the crown of Scotland, succeed, but guilt and madness get the better of them before the rightful heir retakes the kingdom. It’s riveting stuff.
Coen condenses the play into a crisp 100 minutes with Washington’s Macbeth racing through his lines like the rattled emperor he’s become. The effect is as unsettling as the stage design since his Oscar baiting performance has all the caffeinated distress of a madman’s stream of consciousness. Some will love the challenging approach (‘it’s fresh, natural’), others will reject it as a posture that leaves audiences struggling to understand him, and the matters at hand.
If you’re on the less enthusiastic side of Washington’s casting, worry not for the support cast led by McDormand (as Lady Macbeth) with favourites old (Brendan Gleeson) and new (Corey Hawkins) pull you past any misgivings. More than that, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is a compelling vision. Coen’s film is a wonderful opportunity to be drawn beyond the stage into a half-lit, haunted netherworld that’s at once familiar and entirely new. It’s replete with fiercely imaginative treatments of well known scenes - Macbeth and the witches’ cauldron is an absolute standout - that gives it drive and purpose. Not for a moment will you wonder why you’re watching the play yet again. You’ll be way too engaged for that.