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► The Tragedy of Macbeth is in UK cinemas from December 26 and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ from January 14. 

For Joel Coen’s first film directing without brother Ethan, he has found a worthy partner to fill the shoes of his collaborator of 35-odd years: William Shakespeare. It’s not the biggest stretch, since Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy of ambition and guilt finds descendants in the Coen brothers’ gallery of rogues and schlemiels chasing the brass ring. But rather than the antic, picaresque quality of many Coen favourites, The Tragedy of Macbeth has the concentration of a white-hot light, condensing the text (Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy) and shooting in boxed-in Academy ratio on stark soundstages, as if leaving characters nowhere to run.

A theatre veteran, Denzel Washington plays the thane taking bloody shortcuts to the throne, and Frances McDormand the hardheaded mastermind Lady Macbeth, a role she played on stage a few years ago. You might expect Washington, so often a striding man of action on screen, to fill the room with his energy, but he gives Macbeth a sense of age and the burden of experience, even before Duncan’s murder (the confining period garb does its part, too). Washington moves between defiance and hangdog discontent as the couple’s scheme devolves and Macbeth goes in over his head and out of his mind.

Macbeth’s rise and downfall transpire within the bare spaces of castle interiors (with little sense of the castle as a whole) and on windswept no man’s land. That’s another way of saying that Coen embraces the bold physical artifice of the stage, drawing on the early 20th-century stage designer Edward Gordon Craig but also evoking German expressionism and Orson Welles’s Shakespeare films. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s black-and-white artistry is scarily clarifying, laying human figures bare when in close-up or playing-card medium shot, but also open to wide-shot abstraction, with angular shadows and monochrome expanses in Stefan Dechant’s production design. In a word, the film is elemental, the polar opposite of another recent adaptation, Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth, which was part bloodbath, part mudbath.

Whither the witches? Happily, they are a galvanising highlight of the film — but make that ‘she’, not they: the three witches are largely represented as one, through theatre genius Kathryn Hunter, who cuts a gnarly figure with a low, resounding voice that seems to come from everywhere at once. In the film’s field of abstraction, the witches do not ever seem very absent, perhaps also because their prophecies and spells feel alive in the film’s ominous soundscape. Coen makes a guilty motif out of a booming bang that’s like a loose door swinging open and shut in the wind, as if signifying a haunted conscience.

Denzel Washington and Frances Mcdormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth
Denzel Washington and Frances Mcdormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth
© Courtesy of Apple TV+

Not that Washington’s Macbeth spends the film in sweaty dread over his deeds. He and Coen dwell more on the ‘last stand’ quality of his decline, more headstrong than mad, his delivery at points like the bar-room braggart no one listens to any more. Around him, there is the neat dignity of those trying to evade his grisly purge (in a somewhat overshadowed supporting cast). But especially heartrending is Macduff ’s reaction to news of the killing of his wife and children (including one tot who is hurled from great height). As Macduff, Corey Hawkins carves out a moment of unalloyed grief in the story’s brisk chain reaction of horrors amid clean surfaces: “I must feel it as a man.”

It’s one example of how the pared down film brings out feeling in sometimes syncopated ways. Certainly, there are the expected set pieces, such as Lady Macbeth’s frantic sleepwalk, played to the hilt by McDormand, bringing helpless human failing to a character who sometimes feels like a scapegoat fantasy of ruthlessness; or the leafy advance of Malcolm’s army (an orderly, compact affair). There’s even a comic turn in Stephen Root’s bawdy Porter.

But one of Coen’s pivotal choices is both pervasive and easy to overlook: actors’ voices often feel close-up in the sound mix, uncannily so with Hunter’s weird sisters, but more generally enhancing the dramatic presence of actors. That’s not the same thing as fostering a sense of naturalism – it’s Coen melding the artifices of theatre and film. One scene even opens from blackout with a character in a perfect O spotlight, accompanied by the sound of a switch being thrown (a cue also used to open the film, flooding the screen with a white sky where ravens circle). Speaking of sound, Carter Burwell’s typically fine, expertly contoured score slots in strings that mostly lurch and heave in low, with one line wandering high with possibility, unplaceably esoteric.

“Blood will have blood” runs one of many indelible lines (never treated as such – “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” happens on a walk downstairs); but… is Coen’s Tragedy at times a bit bloodless, or arid? While it’s a heady move to steer into stark abstraction and forgo medieval dankness, you do miss a certain body-heat earthiness (palpable even in the Coens’ Blood Simple, 1984, with its Macbethian mopping up of blood). And the wilful erasure of locale is an unforeseen choice from a filmmaker who, with his brother, has previously detailed such colourfully specific cultural settings.

One could speculate about Ethan’s missed influence, but I’m more obsessed with Joel’s answer in an early press interview which deserves airing in full: “Of all the heterosexual relationships in Shakespeare there are a lot of good ones, but there’s only really one good marriage. And that’s the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They happen to be plotting to kill someone, but the marriage is good.”

So, there’s that, which suggests that Coen sees less conflict in the Macbeth household than others do. But he and McDormand (an evident creative partner here) have also characterised their Macbeth as being set, if not in the Middle Ages of Scotland, then definitely in the late middle age of coupledom. These are not young and hungry climbers, but an older, established pair looking to occupy the seat of power they never quite attained before.

Washington’s Macbeth does get a second wind and go down swinging, in a canted-angle sequence on ramparts whose tight quarters reflect his narrow options. But his loss of the crown (and his head) feels inevitable not just as tragedy but as the end to a last-ditch grab by another generation. By the finale (featuring a deep landscape shot and, oddly, a kind of jump scare), Macbeth seems to lie safely in the past, asleep for evermore.

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