Shot in black and white, Joel Coen’s take on the Scottish play is easily one of the best films of the year, as stark and airily elegant as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (with a pinch of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein thrown in). A non-binary witch gyrates like a spider. A wild-haired woman teeters on the most vertiginous of cliffs. We’re part of a nightmare, for sure, but it’s so lush we don’t want it to end.
Denzel Washington is casually commanding as fêted solider (and eventual regicide and crazed schemer) Macbeth. From the beginning, Washington makes the character an intriguing mix of impulsiveness and self-doubt. This Macbeth bites his lip.
Nor does Frances McDormand disappoint as his unlady-like spouse. The latter is dismayed by her husband’s dithering over whether to seize the crown, or let it fall into his lap. To use a phrase I suspect Shakespeare would have loved, Macbeth seems to give Lady Macbeth the ick. McDormand leans into that repulsion, though never overdoes it. As the character rushes through the corridors of her non-cosy home, her stress and strain are palpable.
By choosing Washington and McDormand as his leads, Coen puts a fresh spin on familiar phrases. The couple are convinced they’re fecund, becoming jittery with excitement at the thought of the male children Lady Macbeth might one day bear. In that we can see the grey in Macbeth’s stubble, as well as the lines on his wife’s face, it’s obvious the pair are delusional, which is disarming, as well as unsettling. In a world dominated by dynasties, the couple qualify as underdogs. They’re playing a game they simply can’t win.
This is the first time Joel has made a film without Ethan by his side. The brothers, for years, have been making wry movies about how America deals with so-called outsiders. By doing a “straight”, i.e. pretty much faithful version of Shakespeare, it might seem as if Joel Coen is trying something completely different. It maybe more accurate to say he’s exploring the same theme from a weird angle.
In case you’re wondering, the director does find a way to make us laugh, via a bit of banter between Lady Macduff and her precocious son (Moses Ingram and Ethan Hutchison; both heartbreakingly good).
Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, has plenty of good points but now seems shouty and ketchup-y in comparison to Coen’s offering. It’s impossible not to feel for the characters who populate this exhilaratingly mournful drama. Even when sharing a joke, humans are just a tragedy waiting to happen.
The Tragedy of Macbeth closes the BFI London Film Festival tonight and will have a limited theatrical release this winter, before streaming on Apple TV+on January 14