Coen trims the juicy fat of Shakespeare’s conscientious tale of regicide, resulting in a reasonable 105-minute runtime. In doing so, scenes feel rushed when they should be deeper, clearer and, at the very least, decipherable. It’s safe to assume that most people going into this film know the story already, but there’s a certain presumption about Coen’s scarcer approach – like it’s made for those who already know the Great Bard and know him well.
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand take centre-stage as the murderous Macbeths, plotting (albeit briefly) to kill the ill-fated monarch of Scotland, King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). Doctor Foster’s Bertie Carvel crafts a memorably fearful Banquo. Stephen Root nearly steals the show in one scene as the Porter, offering some relief from a lot of bleakness. Kathryn Hunt is disturbingly spell-binding as the Gollum-like, contortional Witches – one split into three like an Unholy Trinity, a vivid highlight that sears onto the brain.
But McDormand strikes the loudest note as Lady Macbeth. Unlike Washington and many other cast members, she’s not pretending to be a Shakespearean actor. She’s doing her own thing; somehow more real, despite the scheming Lady’s endlessly imitated character. McDormand is much more absorbing, and entertaining, than the fake and frowning faces around her.
More than the performances, however, the visual scope of this adaptation is stylistically astounding. It’s this area of filmmaking where Coen dips into his deep, cinephilic knowledge with regular cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. They blight the colours entirely for a sharp-shadowed monochrome, cramp the action into a tight frame and fill it with expressionistic compositions that slice into the mind’s eye.
Coen and Delbonnel exacerbate that black-and-white claustrophobia by keeping the angles tight, utilising the eerie and unreal production design by Stefan Dechant – rarely travelling over wide vistas or real locations. Everything feels caged, imprisoned on a wildly elaborate, labyrinthian theatre stage.
But with those constrictions, tasty to the eyes as they may be, comes that classic staginess from which theatre-to-film adaptations often suffer. Frankly, it’s not helped by Washington in the lead role. He’s great when he’s angry, but speed-mumbles some of his speeches – as if to get through them. Or maybe it’s to work to Coen’s reduced runtime, who knows which. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a delicately constructed feast, but one eaten too quickly.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2021. The Tragedy of Macbeth is available on Apple TV+ from Friday 14 January.
|What||The Tragedy of Macbeth, Apple TV+ review|
14 Jan 22 – 14 Jan 23, ON APPLE TV+
|Website||Click here for more information|