Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Joel Coen

Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Kathryn Hunter, Alex Hassall, Henry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Corey Hawkins, Stephen Root, Moses Ingram.  

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Shakespeare’s shortest but bloodiest play has been adapted to the stage and screen many times – there have been numerous film and tv adaptations throughout the years – and Verdi even wrote an opera based on the drama. Orson Welles gave us his version of Macbeth in 1948 and legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa gave us his take on the play in 1957 with Throne Of Blood. Two Australian filmmakers have also given us different versions of the famous play – Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 drama was set in contemporary times against the backdrop of Melbourne’s gangland, while in 2015 Justin Kurzel’s moody adaptation emphasised the violent imagery. But for me Roman Polanksi’s 1971 version remains the best, a more faithful adaptation that explored powerful themes of moral decay and violence.  

And now Oscar winning filmmaker Joel Coen, working without his brother and usual collaborator Ethan, tackles the familiar story with his take on the centuries old drama of ambition, power, murder, betrayal and madness. He has crafted a highly stylised version that gives the familiar material a more edgy and gritty quality. Coen interrogates Shakespeare’s text closely here finding new meaning and insight in some of the familiar lines, but he also pares the script back, giving it an urgency that other versions lack. At 105 minutes this is one of the shortest adaptations of the play. 

Colourblind casting sees Denzel Washington step into the role of the noble warrior who is driven by a combination of “supernatural soliciting” from a trio of witches and a lust for power and o’ervaulting ambition to kill the king of Scotland (Brendan Gleeson) and assume the crown. Frances McDormand is suitably cold blooded as Lady Macbeth, his partner in crime who is slowly consumed by guilt and driven to madness by the act of regicide and all the bloodshed that follows. 

Coen makes some bold aesthetic choices here that pay off. The film has been shot in stark, crisp black and white by Cesar award winning French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (A Very Long Engagement, etc), which effectively uses light, shadows and lfog to emphasise the horror and unsettling mood of the piece and give the material a palpable air of foreboding. His approach is reminiscent of the German expressionist cinema of the 1930s. Stefan Dechant’s production design for Macbeth’s imposing castle is stunning, all angles and long hallways and massive doorways leading into sparsely furnished cavernous rooms that lends a surreal quality to the setting. The boxy Academy ratio gives the film an almost claustrophobic feel. The percussive score from regular collaborator Carter Burwell is also quite ominous. And the soundscape of screeching birds and the windswept Scottish moors further adds to the deeply disturbing mood. Blood and water are recurring motifs throughout. 

The sparse and austere nature of the sets makes the film seem a little like a stage play at times. Indeed the whole film was shot on a soundstage. However, a few scenes, such as when the English soldiers cut down the trees in Birnam Wood, seem to open out the material. 

Washington has a commanding screen presence and gives force to his character’s murderous and ruthless nature, but here he also finds power in some of Macbeth’s quieter moments. He and McDormand establish a comfortable and natural dynamic. McDormand brings a steely quality to her early performance as the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth, which makes her mental disintegration all the more heart wrenching to watch.  

In something of a bold casting decision, the witches are all played by English stage actor Kathryn Hunter, who twists and contorts her body and cackles gleefully in a physical performance that is reminiscent of Gollum from Lord Of The Rings. The witches themselves are depicted as ugly misshapen and shapeshifting hags who turn into squawking crows after delivering their prophecies. And not since Hitchcock’s The Birds have birds had such a menacing presence on screen.  

The cast is fleshed out with Gleeson bringing gravitas and dignity to his role as the doomed Duncan, Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter series, etc) cast as Malcolm, Bertie Carvel as Banquo, Macbeth’s loyal friend, Corey Hawkins (from In The Heights, etc) as McDuff, and Alex Hassall as the duplicitous Ross, whose role here is more beefed up than in the play. Stephen Root provides the brief and much needed comic relief as the drunken porter. 


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