A Shakespeare adaptation from The Coen Brothers would have been sure to spark excitement, but there’s a twist to The Tragedy of Macbeth that leaves a few questions in the air. That’s because, while Joel Coen is directing the film, Ethan is not involved, the first time the brothers haven’t worked together. Carter Burwell, The Coens’ regular composer, revealed in an interview that Ethan “didn’t want to make movies anymore”, leaving fans wondering what differences there will be with the duo split up.
No one could accuse Joel of playing it safe for his first solo project: a black-and-white version of The Scottish Play starring Denzel Washington in the title role, and Frances McDormand playing Lady Macbeth (the four-time Oscar winner also produces the film). For those fuzzy on the story, Macbeth is a Scottish Lord visited by three witches who prophesise that he will be king. Spurred on by the ambitions of Lady Macbeth, he plots an unthinkable assassination of the current monarch (Brendan Gleeson), only for guilt and dark visions to slowly turn him to madness.
Reuniting with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Coen crafts a monochromatic ghost story which seems inspired by the great filmmakers of the past. The brutalist style of Macbeth’s castle, with its foreboding arches and harsh edges, seems inspired by Fritz Lang; while the skewed camera angles and soundstage sets bring to mind the work of Hitchcock. It’s a gorgeous work of art, retaining the Coens’ dark sensibilities while taking rewarding chances.
Washington is magnificent, with a mastery of language and delivery that means none of his towering presence is lost to staginess. His Macbeth is swept up in ambition, buying into the prophesy so quickly that by the time he utters “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well. It were done quickly”, his conviction leaves you in no doubt. Equally, his descent into madness is intriguing, his Macbeth flailing against his visions, straining with incredulity at what is happening to him.
It would be easy to dismiss McDormand’s inclusion as just another collaboration with her husband (this is the ninth Coen movie she has appeared in), but even without the history she’s the perfect pick for this role. As with Washington, McDormand’s age means that she is able to give Lady Macbeth more poise, steady in her portrayal as she masterminds their terrible plot. It’s another exemplary performance from a star who is on the form of her career.
The illustrious leads mean everyone in the cast is at the top of their game. Celebrated British stage actors such as Bertie Carvel and Harry Melling add flavour to the surreal world, while Kathryn Hunter gives a startling physical performance as the witches. Alex Hassell is the film’s surprise package as Ross, a character used in a slightly different context than in traditional productions, while Corey Hawkins blazes with fury as Macduff.
A murky Shakespearean fever dream, The Tragedy of Macbeth should be among the award contenders as the award season circus rolls around. It is both a platform for two acting legends, and an exciting introduction to a director going it alone.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is in cinemas from Boxing Day, and on Apple TV+ from January 14th.