The Tragedy of Macbeth, review: Denzel Washington's tortured king crowns a movie to die for

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth – LMK Media

  • Cert tbc, 105 min. Dir: Joel Coen

The knocking at the castle door is like a bailiff’s battering ram: a rhythmic, deafening, nether-worldly thud that speaks of a dire moral debt, and the just-as-dire means by which fate is about to claw it back.

If you had to boil down Joel Coen’s astonishing new screen version of Macbeth to a single sound or image, this noise – which is a nerve-jangling recurring feature – would probably be it. But really, no further reduction is required. Coen’s pared-down adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy has simmered its source text long and low, leeching every last drop of pungency and savour from the carcass.

It is the first feature the 66-year-old Coen has made without his younger sibling Ethan – the other half of the auteur double-act behind Fargo, Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis, and so many more films which all shared that unmistakeable, darkly mischievous Coen-esque streak.

But aside from its rudimentary mechanism of crime and comeuppance, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels in no way like a Coen brothers film. It’s as cold and weird and lucid as a waking dream, shot in a pristine, magnesium-bright monochrome, and situated on stark, angular sets that melt into abstraction as they approach the edges of the near-square screen. Shadows cast by bony boughs menacingly finger the walls; lancet windows yawn like open coffins. Hours dreadful and things strange? Roll up, roll up.

The film begins with a single word hewn in white on a black screen: WHEN. This is, of course, the famous first beat of the witches’ opening croak – “When shall we three meet again?” – though in paring down the play, Coen has slashed their ranks from three to one. Terrifyingly embodied by the stage actress Kathryn Hunter, she twists and snaps her limbs like Gollum doing Pilates, while a trio of distinct voices splutter from her mouth.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth – LMK Media

When Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) come across this creature on the heath, her reflection in a pond divides, and the three-pronged prophecy is made. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, then King of Scotland outright – though it will be Banquo, not he, who sires the royal line.

“The earth hath bubbles, as the water has / And these are of them,” Banquo warily observes – and Carvel all but murmurs the lines, charging them with fright. Like Orson Welles’s 1948 adaptation of Macbeth – which, like this, was shot entirely on studio sets in Los Angeles – Coen’s film is all the more unsettling for its obvious artifice; there is nothing to muddy the horror and nowhere for the cast to hide.

“There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face,” Brendan Gleeson’s Duncan muses – though you’d have to say cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel gives it his best shot, leaning in for the kind of sustained, psychologically scouring close-ups that would have made less capable actors scurry off to Birnam Wood and duck into a shrub.

Coen’s players excel under the scrutiny, though. Washington gives a masterful performance here that delivers on the title’s explicit promise of tragedy – he brilliantly traces the contours of Macbeth’s undoing, from ambition to apprehensiveness then down through mounting despair to nihilistic resignation. As Lady Macbeth, who with her husband bloodily conspires to fulfil the witches’ predictions, Frances McDormand is his equal, tracing her own distinct but intertwined tragic fall, and half-goading, half-tempting her husband on like a noir femme fatale.

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth – LMK Media

The couple’s ages are integral: Washington and especially McDormand play the plot as a desperate last snatch at power, rather than the actions of a bloodthirsty power couple on the rise. It’s villainous, yes – but also skeweringly sad. During the fateful banquet scene, there is something horrifying – and also horribly recognisable – in McDormand’s tense, quietly desperate attempt to maintain a semblance of sovereignty while her husband storms off to rail at Banquo’s spirit.

The scene is ingeniously staged, like so many others here: when the forest comes to high Dunsinane hill, it does so in a flurry of leaves borne on the wind; it’s a moment of pure and thrillingly mad expressionistic spectacle. But the innovation goes deeper: Alex Hassell’s Ross is presented less as a messenger figure than as a kind of flashing-smiled, inscrutable vizier. And smaller, easy-to-cut characters and scenes survive for all sorts of clever and intriguing reasons, like Stephen Root’s drunken, blundering porter, and the old man who talks with Ross at the end of Act II, whose face and voice may ring an uncomfortable bell.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth may be the best-served by cinema, with terrific, distinctive adaptations over the years from Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, and most recently Justin Kurzel, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Coen’s is something different again – though new would be entirely the wrong word. It resonates with the ancient power of a ritual.

Screening at the New York Film Festival now, and as part of the London Film Festival at venues around the UK on Sunday October 17

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