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The Tragedy of Macbeth
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and Corey Hawkins
Classification R; 105 minutes
Opens in Toronto and Vancouver theatres Dec. 25, with additional cities Jan. 1; streaming on Apple TV+ starting Jan. 14
It is a small, wicked wonder that it took this long for a Coen brother to make Macbeth. Greed, murder, the supernatural cruelty of the cosmos – the through-lines between Shakespeare and Joel and Ethan are so sharp they could make Banquo bleed. “What’s done cannot be undone”: Is that the Bard or Anton Chigurh?
So it is little surprise that Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth works so viciously well. The only question is where Ethan went, and what he may have taken with him. Some unimpressed critics are already suggesting that the younger Coen is the funny one – the driver of the dark humour that crashes into so many of the siblings’ schmucks and nogoodniks. Perhaps, but Joel’s Macbeth is no straight-faced slog. There is as much wit as there is wretchedness, the director having no trouble finding the human comedy scratching beneath the title tragedy. It is an unfair game of hypotheticals to say how this Macbeth might have looked had the brothers worked on it together, as they have for 30-plus films now. So let’s be bold, bloody and resolute, giving simple thanks for what Joel has wrought on his own.
Shot entirely on sound stages in crisp black and white, the artifice of the set’s stark and imposing castle walls lending a straight-from-hell atmosphere, The Tragedy of Macbeth announces itself a distorted-world drama. Mortal danger and eternal damnation surround Macbeth (Denzel Washington) from all sides here, and the sound and fury of Shakespeare’s text is amplified by Joel’s efficiently brutal screenplay. More than simply understanding and appreciating the historical allure of the Scottish play, the filmmaker finds a fresh sickness in this tale of a battle-proven lord fixated on the power of a crown that he cannot, or should not, have. The prophecies of Shakespeare’s three witches? Burn after reading.
Speaking of the weird sisters, whose toil and trouble opens the story’s misdeeds: they are each given sinister life by Kathryn Hunter, a stage veteran who is a frighteningly skilled shape-shifter, all impossible limb twists and sour facial distortions. Her casting is one of Joel’s biggest coups here, although there are scene-savouring competitors, too.
Pulling from a deep bench of regular collaborators including Brendan Gleeson (Duncan), Harry Melling (Malcolm), Stephen Root (Porter) and his real-life wife Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth) – as well as such new-to-him forces of nature as Washington, Bertie Carvel (Banquo) and Corey Hawkins (Macduff) – Joel assembles one of the most intimidating group of performers to populate either a Shakespeare adaptation or a Coen brothers production.
Washington could be reading from, say, the trash-bag script of John Turturro’s Big Lebowski spin-off The Jesus Rolls (it exists!), and still make the whole thing sing. McDormand is an equally powerful, volatile presence, with the actor determined to fall as far into darkness as the story allows.
Meanwhile, the crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel is confident, extreme, and determined. His close-up focus on the faces and even follicles of the cast are so intense that you can almost see the second that everyone’s moral fibres break apart. I was skeptical of my screening’s IMAX format, given the absence of any large-scale action sequences à la Justin Kurzel’s gorier 2015 version of Macbeth, but this is indeed a film that deserves the tallest, clearest, most frighteningly large canvas possible.
By the time that Joel’s Tragedy concludes, you will stop wondering what Ethan might think and, as another Coen character would say, simply accept the mystery of this singular Macbeth.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.