The Tragedy of Macbeth: Lean, efficient take on the Scottish Play

Joel Coen delivers an expressionist version of the often-filmed drama

The Tragedy of Macbeth
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Director: Joel Coen
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter
Running Time: 1 hr 46 mins

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, the Scottish Play is the one that rattles along at the greatest pace. Get in a few excellent actors, light the thing with style, distribute the bloodied claymores and you will have an entertainment worth savouring. On those fronts, Joel Coen’s first feature shot without his brother Ethan’s collaboration cannot be faulted.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand could hardly be classier casting for vaulting Macbeth and his somnambulistic wife. Production designer Stefan Dechant and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel create a claustrophobic environment — monochrome images shut within a 4:3 Academy ratio — that suggests early expressionist cinema and the metaphysical spaces of Giorgio de Chirico.

Being the least conspicuously Scottish of filmed versions, the film may not deliver on the authentic ironmongery, but you won’t see a better depiction of the witches on film. The ancient theatrical warhorse has done it again. They will be cheering from the balcony.

And yet. We do ask that contemporary productions of Shakespeare offer some Big Idea. Kathryn Hunter gives one of the most striking and ingenious performances of the year as all three weird sisters. Appearing first as one figure reflected twice in a bleak pool, she goes on to twist her body into exhausting pretzels as she lays out Macbeth's route to brief supremacy. Whereas some other actors here — though not a delightfully sweet-voiced Brendan Gleeson as Duncan — go for the familiar Shakespeare-on-film mutter, she speaks with a precision that practically writes the words upon the screen. Yet you wouldn't say there is enough there to provide the film with a governing notion.


The impressive visuals certainly stick in the brain. Too often “cinematic” is taken to mean widescreen shots of sunsets in Monument Valley (and the like), Coen and his team are here to remind us that the medium can also make the most of unmistakable interior sets. Not too dissimilar from the oddly lit McNowhere of Orson Welles’s 1948 version, this is a noirish zone of reified consciousness. The space moulds itself to the demands of Macbeth’s guilt and anxiety. A door handle becomes the imagined dagger that he “sees before” him. Recurring unkindnesses of ravens herald doom and lend one of their number for Banquo’s ghost. There is the making of a Biggish Idea there.

The most promising candidate for a unique variation is suggested by the age of the principals. Both in their mid-sixties, Washington and McDormand are at least two decades older than most actors who take on those roles (neither Michael Fassbender nor Marion Cotillard was yet 40 when they shot Justin Kurzel's barely intelligible 2015 film). Ambition takes on a different colour for this couple. Rather than furthering a long-term plan, they are taking one last chance before the bones seize up and the eyesight clouds. Washington and McDormand do not clutch backs like Eastwood used to in those cop films where he was "getting too old for this," but our awareness of their age adds urgency to the clamour for power.

Not that urgency is otherwise in short supply. Coen has, with great efficiency, trimmed the text down to a raw, lean 105 minutes. That he has done this without cutting the Porter — Stephen Root is a qualified success in a comic scene that flops as often as it soars — makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

Sometimes motivation is a little slack. We could, perhaps, have done with more martial colour. But Washington and McDormand, as cool to one another as CoenLand demands, speak the text with sufficient nuance to create their own dramatic waves throughout. This is a Macbeth for the head rather than the heart, but no less beguiling for that.

It is done well. It is done quickly.

Opens on December 27th.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist