From the very moment that Kathryn Hunter’s contorted Witch sits playing with a decapitated finger in the first few moments of the film, it is clear that this adaptation is going to be an eerie, stressed event. Many may ask why Joel Coen has decided to reimagine the Shakespearian play again, after all the realist version with Michael Fassbender as the titular character only came out in 2015. But what is achieved in this film is so much more than the ordinary adaptations audiences are used to seeing. Set in black and white, with the influence of German expressionism practically poking you in the eye, this adaptation feels like it’s being theatrically performed with its stylised, stripped back set. What it entails is a nightmare of barrenness, something that will make you want to go back and rewatch all over again as soon as the credits roll.
It is without a doubt that Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand captured the essence of the murderous married couple with dagger-like sharpness. Washington portrays Macbeth as an already tired man, encapsulating the humanity and flaws of the character - after all the film isn’t called The Tragedy of Macbeth for no reason. He is assured, but vulnerable at the same time and both strides across the screen in royal confidence whilst his bloodthirsty despair overwhelms his mind. He both mumbles and shouts, raves and whispers in an impressive capture of the eloquence Macbeth’s speech has before he falls to tyranny. Frances McDorman, on the other hand, is the picture of devotion and passion. She brings a hard domestic authority into the role, hinting at the Machiavellian roots of the character, but does so in a way that doesn’t place all of the blame on her as a scheming manipulator of her husband. It is refreshing to see in this adaptation that Macbeth is shown to be in charge of his own actions, with the Witches prophecies spilling poison into his ear rather than his wife as is so often portrayed.
But it is not just these two actors who make this film, the strong ensemble makes sure that the film doesn’t fall down. Bertie Carvel’s Banquo (whose bushy eyebrows deserve their own article), Alex Hassell’s Ross, Corey Hawkin’s Macduff, Harry Melling’s Malcolm and Brendon Gleeson’s Duncan all give their own mini masterclass in acting. Together they encapsulate the world of the Scottish court, with deceit, betrayal and loyalty all at the heart of their performances. Watching Gleeson’s Duncan be killed by Macbeth as he slowly sinks a dagger into his throat makes you cringe in your seat, bringing the underlying horror that has crept up in this film to the surface.
The other standout of this film is, of course, the visuals. Stefan Dechant’s striking production design imagines the Macbeth’s castle as a giant modernist house, with corridors that extend so far it looks like they are never-ending. This combined with Bruno Delbonnel’s harsh cinematography creates a setting that wouldn’t look out of place in a crime drama from the 30s or 40s. But there’s never a shot of the exterior, and what we are left with is an entrapment of the barren. The audience, like the Macbeths, becomes tangled in the weird and there’s no chance of escape as the fog surrounds and covers the screen.
Rating: 5/5. The Tragedy of Macbeth has a limited theatrical release and is now streaming on Apple TV+.