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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Something wicked this way comes — a wickedly stunning new Shakespeare adaptation starring a phenomenal Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.
By Sarah Ward
December 24, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
December 24, 2021
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Bringing Shakespeare to the big screen is no longer just about doing the material justice, or even about letting a new batch of the medium's standout talents give their best to the Bard's immortal words. For anyone and everyone attempting the feat (a list that just keeps growing), it's also about gifting the playwright's material with the finest touches that cinema allows. It's never enough to simply film Macbeth like a theatre production, for instance, even if all that dialogue first penned four centuries ago still ripples with power — while riffing about power — without any extra adornments. No Shakespeare adaptation really needs to explain or legitimise its existence more than any other feature, but the great ones bubble not only with toil and trouble, but with all the reasons why this tale needed to be captured on camera and projected large anew.

Joel Coen knows all of the above. Indeed, his take on the Scottish play — which he's called The Tragedy of Macbeth, taking Shakespeare's full original title — justifies its existence as a movie in every single frame. His is a film of exacting intimacy, with every shot peering far closer at its main figures than anyone could ever see on a stage, and conveying more insight into their emotions, machinations and motivations in the process. The Bard might've posited that all the world's a stage in As You Like It, but The Tragedy of Macbeth's lone Coen brother doesn't quite agree. Men and women are still merely players in this revived quest for supremacy through bloodshed, but their entrances, exits and many parts would mean nothing if we couldn't see as far into their hearts and minds as cinema — and as cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's (The Woman in the Window) stripped-down, black-and-white, square-framed imagery — can possibly allow.

In a year for filmmakers going it alone beyond the creative sibling relationships that've defined their careers — see also: The Matrix Resurrections — Joel Coen makes a phenomenal solo debut with this up-close approach. His choice of cast, with Denzel Washington (The Little Things) as powerful as he's ever been on-screen and Frances McDormand (The French Dispatch) showing why she has three Best Actress Oscars, also helps considerably. The former plays the eponymous Scottish general, the latter his wife, and both find new reserves and depths in the pair's fateful lust for glory. That's another key element to any new silver-screen iteration of Shakespeare's most famous works: making its characters feel anew. Washington and McDormand — and Coen as well — all tread in the footsteps of of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Nitram) thanks to 2015's exquisite Macbeth, but they stand in absolutely no one's shadows.

As also previously splashed across cinemas by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, the narrative details remain the same, obviously — from the witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter, Flowers) prophesying that Macbeth will soon be monarch, through to his murderous actions at Lady Macbeth's urging to make that prediction become a reality. All that scheming has consequences, both before and after King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson, Mr Mercedes) is stripped of his throne. One of the smartest parts of the movie's central casting is the change it brings to the Macbeths' seething desperation. Due to Washington and McDormand's ages, their versions of the characters are grasping onto what might be their last chance, rather than being ruthless with far more youthful abandon. They're susceptible to the Weird Sisters' suggestions in a different way, too, embracing what they think should already be theirs rather than seizing a shot they may not have expected for some time otherwise.

McDormand's involvement is hardly surprising — she's married to Joel, is one of the Coen brothers' mainstays when her husband and his sibling Ethan share directorial credits, and won her first Academy Award for playing a pregnant police chief in their crime classic Fargo. But The Tragedy of Macbeth moulds what could've just been a given, a case of spouses reteaming again, into an inspired opportunity to give its source material a few shrewd tweaks. Writing as well as helming, that's the intensely fastidious level that Joel operates on. His work has always been assembled with precision, but that devotion to detail feels as stark here as the movie's overwhelmingly evocative monochrome visuals. For a filmmaker known for surveying life's chaotic and careening turns, dating back to 1984's Blood Simple, spanning comedies such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, and evident in the more recent Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar!, too, he makes mess and mayhem look meticulous in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

This towering adaptation may carve its own space among the many other Macbeths, but it also shows Coen's penchant for Welles' rendering — and his films in general — plus Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. Those nods come through aesthetically, flickering through a feature that masterfully looks as if it could've been made decades ago. The Tragedy of Macbeth's German expressionism-influenced use of light and darkness isn't just sharp, it's piercing, aptly so when Washington stands in a lengthy corridor to ask "is this a dagger which I see before me?". They're intense words from one of the Bard's greatest soliloquies, and they're paired with such stunning cinematography — that hallway appears to keep extending forever, a sight that says oh-so-much about the moral precipice Macbeth stands at — that the effect is scorching.

Something wicked this way comes within the narrative, of course, but something magnificent unfurls in this new retelling. Stepping back into the acclaimed play proves a lean and ravishing experience again and again here, and also eerie and potent — a mesmerising brew when it comes to this story. Strutting and fretting as Delbonnel's staggering cinematography gazes his way, and as Carter Burwell's (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) score ramps up the tension, Washington is equally transfixing. He needs to be to play this part. He needs to be remarkable to express Macbeth's transformation from loyal royal offsider to killer, and to navigate the corresponding existential torment. Something astonishing this way comes as a result, a feat that isn't The Tragedy of Macbeth's alone with this tale (Kurzel's version was the best film of its year), but provides another masterwork full of sound and fury signifying everything.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2021, and will be available to stream via Apple TV+ on January 14, 2022.

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