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The Tragedy of Macbeth review – one of the all-time great screen Shakespeares

Joel Coen, Denzel Washington, and Frances McDormand have crafted a ferocious and bleakly beautiful take on The Scottish Play

Given that the last major screen take on Macbeth was only six years ago – not to mention utterly brilliant – you’d need a damn good reason to go about redoing it in 2021. The Tragedy of Macbeth has three: Joel Coen, Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand. This dream team, along with the staggering work of their fellow cast and crew, has delivered one of the truly great screen Shakespeares, one that wrings out the horror of the original text for all it’s worth into an unsparing and coldly beautiful account of an iconic and hideous rise to power.

Washington and McDormand play the ruthless title couple, speaking the verse in their native American accents (everyone in the cast gets to keep their natural accent), and each giving titanic performances. McDormand is of course scheming and brutal, but tiny, almost imperceptible moments of tenderness break through too, while Washington is magnetic, raging against fate and absolutely crushing the soliloquies, all while his eyes pierce the audience through DOP Bruno Delbonnel’s incredible close-ups.

Coen is working entirely without his brother Ethan for the first time here, but if there were any jitters, it doesn’t show. This is probably the most stylistically bold Coen production to date, embracing artifice to create a perfect fusion of stage and screen. Immense, expressionistic sets are captured in a gloriously stark black-and-white, the sheer scale of the production pushing against the restraints of the claustrophobic aspect ratio, giving you a sort of tunnel vision that places you squarely, and very discomfortingly, in Macbeth’s headspace.

Pretty much every choice here is inspired, from the careful paring down of the source text that keeps things moving at a lightning pace without losing any of the depth to the way the omnipresent mist bridges the gap between earth and sky to the superb take on the Three Witches. Played by stage actress and contortionist Kathryn Hunter, the Witches sometimes inhabit one body, Hunter twisting both her limbs and her voice to portray each one distinctly, and are sometimes three, rising out of reflections in water or perching atop the castle’s beams as they magically flood entire rooms in seconds.

It’s an extraordinary performance from Hunter, acting as one of the keystones to Coen’s visual and tonal choices and would, in a just world, make her a shoo-in for a legion of nominations come awards season. The rest of the cast is top-notch too, from Corey Hawkins as a restrained but burningly angry Macduff to Alex Hassell as the silver-tongued and steel-eyed Ross, Coen and Delbonnel framing them perfectly against the stunning backdrops.

Alongside Dune, The Tragedy of Macbeth is the best-designed film of the year, whether it’s trapping you in the bizarre corridors of Dunsinane or having immense castles and mountains loom out at you through the blinding white fogs that envelop the “exteriors” (everything you see was shot on a soundstage, which lends the whole affair its thrillingly surreal touch). The key set-piece of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane – rendered so magnificently in fire and ash in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth – is as good as it’s ever been on screen here. It’s brilliantly cinematic in execution, but you can just about imagine seeing it in the best and most ambitious stage versions of the play, too.

Driving everything along is Carter Burwell’s eerie, ominous score, which melds seamlessly with the oppressive sound design. Thuds, crashes, and wet slaps of blood and water permeate the entire film, often coming unannounced from off screen to torment the Macbeths, not to mention the audience. These knockings are relentless – something dark and hungry waits behind the doors, and it will not rest until it gets the grim justice it seeks. Ferocious and bleak, Coen’s Macbeth latches somewhere deep and primal in your brain and simply refuses to let go.

The Tragedy of Macbeth was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 26 December.

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