The Tragedy of Macbeth

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Shakespearean Drama

Availability: In theatres and streaming on Apple TV and Amazon Prime

Plot: In this extraordinary production, director Joel Coen adapts the famous Scottish play, choosing to remain largely faithful to the original plot. Macbeth, one of the king’s generals, hears ‘three witches’ predict that he will become the King of Scotland, but that his heirs will not succeed him. Spurred by his ruthless and ambitious wife, Macbeth murders the king and gains the throne. Once there, in order to avoid suspicion and retain power, he is compelled to commit further murders. Consumed by guilt as the gravity of the crimes are fully realised, he and Lady Macbeth fall first into madness, and then meet their own deaths.

Cast: In a star-studded cast, and notwithstanding fine performances by Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth, it is Kathryn Hunter playing all three witches who is the most impressive. Hunter contorts her body in crow-like movements that brilliantly carry the supernatural elements of the play. It is a chilling and mesmerising performance. 

Filming and Setting: Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography in this production is really quite amazing. Filming in black and white brings a cold austerity to the film, creating a misty grey bleakness in the remote Scottish highlands. The massive cloisters and staircases inside the castle walls are presented theatrically in shadowed lighting. Every photographic frame is exhibition-worthy. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some well-known art gallery commandeers them for their next big exhibition. They really are that good. The challenging notion of how to bring the Birnam Wood to Dunsinane has vexed many a production, but not this one. It is answered with an impressive image of movement that illustrates the quality of inspired film making.      

Personal Comments: Coen brother fans will have greatly anticipated the release of Joel Coen’s interpretation of Macbeth, and some may be surprised by its lack of action. While there are some bloody scenes, this is a brooding interpretation that studies the psychological elements from a distance, without getting too deeply involved. There is no doubt that Washington and McDormand are experienced Shakespearean actors, both powerfully commanding in different ways. But neither character’s slide into madness is particularly convincing. While there are some terrific scenes, the film doesn’t quite give them the time they need to take us through that harrowing transition. What is unusual about the film, nevertheless, is Coen’s casting of these two particular actors who are both in their mid-sixties. Although Shakespeare doesn’t give any indication of the characters’ ages in the play, the Macbeths are often perceived as an ambitious younger couple, intent on securing power. By positioning the characters in their later years, Coen adds further questions relating to the themes of children, parenthood and legacy to the mix. I expect this alone will keep academics arguing the toss for years. It is certainly a film to see.

2 Replies to “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

  1. A compelling review Marie and the Cohen Brothers (or at least one of them) ‘doing’ Macbeth sounds like a marriage made in heaven (or hell). However, availability in theatres or Apple TV puts it out of reach again. Very frustrating! I haven’t seen it advertised in the cinemas here – maybe that is to come

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