“By the pricking of my thumbs …” We’ll try not to complete the line, given the reputation of what is otherwise known as The Scottish Play, but this latest film version of the last of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies is anything but cursed with bad luck. It is, however, most definitely wicked in the 21st century sense of the word.
Flying solo as director, Joel Coen creates a visually striking interpretation of the familiar story about political ambition, one that nods in the direction of some of its predecessors in the Shakespearean canon. The essential narrative remains the same. Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is Thane of Glamis, loyal in his service of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) so when the Thane of Cawdor is exposed as a traitor, he’s gifted the title. Sensing an opportunity for ultimate power, and obsessed by a prediction from three witches, he conspires with his wife (Frances McDormand) to kill Duncan and take over the throne. But he’s unable to completely squash the opposition and those who were once his friends are now deadly enemies.
That Coen has drawn on a number of influences for the film is apparent from the opening moments – the black and white photography, the emphasis on almost forensic close-ups, the murky fog and, once the locations switch to interiors, stark, clean lines in cold surroundings. Any glimmer of warmth is noticeably absent, reinforcing the ambition of the Macbeths, but anybody watching will pick up hints of Orson Welles and European cinema, as well as the sense of a stage production adapted for the big screen. It’s not, but it creates tension, intensity and the paranoia that rises to the surface as the narrative unfolds. Images that will grasp you by the throat are there right from the start, especially when it comes to Kathryn Hunter – is she one witch or all three? – and her stunningly physical performance.
Coen’s “Macbeth noir” also brings new takes on some of the most famous scenes. Most disturbing is the killing of Duncan, which originally happened off stage (showing a king being murdered in early 1600’s England wasn’t a good idea) and which, in Coen’s hands is stylish, bloody and all the more haunting as the two men look each other straight in the eye as the final blow is struck. And he holds on to the play’s one moment of comedy, the sequence with the gatekeeper, who now also appears later in the film in scenes that owe more to King Lear than Macbeth. Every version tries to shed different light to the couple at the centre of the action, be they remarkably young (Polanski) or mourning a personal tragedy (Justin Kurzel). This pair are older and have served Duncan for years, patiently waiting for the recognition and reward they believe they deserve so that, when it comes their way, pent up frustration means they’ll grab the chance with both hands. Whatever the cost.
Washington, as ever, commands the screen in a performance full of frailties but he is more than matched by McDormand whose Lady MacB despairs when she realises that he’s simply not up to the job. Just watch the look in her eyes when he tells everybody that he killed the guards believed to have murdered Duncan. She knows from that moment that it’s going to be downhill all the way. For the audience, however, this is a film that hardly ever misses a beat – Corey Hawkins’ Macduff doesn’t quite have the emotional heft that the role demands – with eye-popping cinematography from Coen Brothers’ regular, Bruno Delbonnel, and a relentless grip on the malevolence that’s the essential life blood of the story. It’s a triumph.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Cinemas, 26 December 2021. Apple TV+, 14 January 2022 | Dir. Joel Coen | Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Kathryn Hunter, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling.