At times resembling a horror film more than a retelling of William Shakespeare’s oft-told tragedy, Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a staggering take on the classic tale.
Powered by solid performances from its veteran cast, the film is a triumph of production design, Coen and his crew having created a closed-off nightmare world of shadows and fog. This powerfully underscores the notion that not simply the titular character but all involved are hemmed in by forces beyond their control, and their actions and thoughts not their own but the result of being bandied about as playthings by those with greater powers.
There’s a sense of urgency to this production as Coen, in adapting the play, has stripped the story to its barest bones. The titular character’s (Denzel Washington) journey to doom is more pronounced as this version focuses exclusively on the ill-advised machinations he and his wife (Frances McDormand) put in play to help realize a prophesy from cryptic witch(es) he encounters when returning from battle.
The second scene, in which the warrior and his brother-in-arms, Banquo (Bertie Carvel), encounter the sorceress is stunning moment. Dancer Kathryn Hunter contorts her body and employs a chilling rasp while delivering the dire predictions, while Coen employs visual trickery to make the actress seem as if she is one person and three at the same time. It’s a moment that serves notice, informing the viewer as to Coen’s approach. He keeps us on our heels throughout, subtly and gradually creating a sense of dread that permeates the entire film.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is the unsung hero. Borrowing heavily from German Expressionist films, he creates a hemmed-in environment that steadily closes in on the characters. Painting with light and shadow, as well as employing long vertical and horizontal columns and pillars throughout, the sense of claustrophobia, stressed as well by Coen’s use of the narrow, square-like aspect ratio, underscores the inescapable nature of Macbeth’s fate.
The two leads embrace the daunting challenge of bringing a fresh approach to the well-known titular couple.
Washington takes a while to warm to the role, his early scenes lacking fire. But once the murder of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) occurs, the actor kicks things into high gear, giving us not a Macbeth full of bluster but one who gradually begins to fray, a sense of fiery desperation setting in as his wife’s plan falls apart.
McDormand’s trademark sense of strength is put to good use, not just to bring the queen’s steely nature to the fore but to make her downfall more tragic. Seeing this powerful woman fall prey to her own ambition resulting in a moment of poignancy is a tribute to the actor’s skill.
It would be foolish to regard this as the definitive film version of the play, as purists would surely object to the omissions Coen makes. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that so accurately captures the power of Shakespeare’s tale.
The sense of doom, accentuated dramatically and visually, and the portrayal of evil that dwells in the darkest hearts of humanity make this “Macbeth” hard to shake.