Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth
Amy Colwell marvels at the visual spectacle of Joel Coen’s modernist, stark take on the classic Shakespearean tale of paranoia and betrayal.
Joel Coen’s melancholic, haunting reimagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for A24 provides audiences with nearly two hours of brilliant visual spectacle. There is undeniable pressure that accompanies the production of a Shakespeare adaptation, with other attempts having had varying success over the years. However, Coen manages to pull it off, creating a truly unique rendition of the play which remains true to its theatrical roots, despite its stark modernist appearance.
What makes the film so striking is its visuals. The bleak, barren castle of the Macbeths emphasises the emptiness of their lives, only exacerbated by the production’s being shot entirely in black-and-white. Amazingly, the film manages to convey a palpable sense of claustrophobia despite its many vast open spaces, isolated Scottish landscapes and ceiling-less rooms, creating a jarring yet visceral experience. The panopticon-esque atrium imbues the constant underlying sense of surveillance, with secrets, murder and deceit seemingly hiding in plain sight.
In true Coen fashion, Frances McDormand stars as Lady Macbeth, bringing with her steely demeanour and malevolent private outbursts a necessary depth to the character. Denzel Washington takes the lead opposite her as the titular Macbeth, chronicling his descent into guilt and madness with a wearied gait and increasingly unhinged gaze.
All in all, an impressive first venture for Joel Coen for the first time without his brother Ethan
A special mention must be given to Kathryn Hunter’s cawing, croaking performance as all three witches, bringing a hauntingly strange quality to the role. Alex Hassell plays the smooth, skulking Ross, a fairly minor character who Coen has promoted to prominence in his adaptation; a good decision, in my book, as it is all the more fascinating to watch him deftly manipulate everyone around him and sow chaos with every whisper.
The choice to use a variety of British and American accents is interesting and one of my only personal points of complaint with the film. Although Coen stated that he elected to do this so the actors could deliver their lines in the most realistically passionate manner, it is one of the first things I noticed and brought me some distance out of the film’s narrative.
All in all, an impressive first venture for Joel Coen for the first time without his brother Ethan by his side. The film has received nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the 94th Academy Awards, with Washington enjoying a variety of nods for his performance – from the Academy and beyond. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a chillingly memorable rendition that strikes the perfect balance between staying true to the play and offering a unique take.