Amongst the many amazing reasons why Shakespeare is still as big as it gets, is that he’s eminently adaptable. You can set Richard III in the 1930s or you can place Much Ado About Nothing in an English country house. You can make King John and Timon of Athens a woman and you can make the shrew Katherina a man. Or – and perhaps currently slightly out of favour – you can go back to the original and, as Joel Coen has done with The Tragedy of Macbeth, set it as Shakespeare wrote it.
Here we are in 11th century Scotland, with the film shot in black and white to give it an extra sense of history and mystery. And here’s the movie’s absolutely winning element. It’s in the visual/sensory department that this film really works. Coen moves us from scene to scene with such seamless cinematographic tricks that 105 minutes flies by. Trudging through virgin snow, fading whites into greys into blacks, with flapping tent fabric that sounds like the ominous birds who metamorphose into the witches; a solitary witch standing against water who creates a reflection of more than one body; light flashing through windows and archways to form a line of pure white against the black of buildings, giving varying suggestions of confinement or expanse; a far off dagger I see before me that becomes the door handle to Duncan’s bedchamber; the unstoppable Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane as almost floating foliage, followed by Macbeth opening a window and the leaves flooding uncontrollably in. I could go on, but that would create far too long a sentence. The stark, featureless castle offers no comfort chez Macbeth, and the whole appearance of the film frequently put me in mind of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, if that isn’t too Pseuds Corner.
The script is credited to Joel Coen rather than Shakespeare, and it’s true that he plays around with the original a little bit, developing the role of Ross (Alex Hassell excellent in both loyal and turncoat guises, wearing an appropriately flappy bird-like gown) by making him not only the third murderer but also Fleance’s protector. The performances and characterisations (on the whole) are very strong and memorable. Neither pantomime villains nor unbelievably virtuous people here. Nobility and ignobility shine through; Bertie Carvel’s Banquo and especially Corey Hawkins’ Macduff bestride the screen like Colossuses, serving Brendan Gleeson’s dignified and super-trusting Duncan. Macbeth’s killer incision into Duncan’s throat, and Macduff’s all my pretty chickens speech are amongst the film’s most memorable moments – as indeed is the method of dispatching young Macduff minor, thrown into a horrible deathly abyss.
Harry Melling’s Malcolm is a sturdily decent young chap in whom Scotland can have some hope of a better future. Kathryn Hunter, the aforementioned female Timon, is outstanding as the Witches, constantly moving in and out of human form into something more abstract, her physicality lending a truly bird-like presence; and Stephen Root is effective as the Porter, a role that can make or break the tension of the story, his potentially tedious speech quickly handled to bridge the gap between the horrible deed and its discovery.
Which brings me to the Macbeths. Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is a naturally quiet, unassuming kind of guy who may talk of vaulting ambition, but you never quite believe it. It’s an underplayed reading of the role, as though he’s already burned out before his spirit has caught fire, and I’m not sure to what extent he would inspire the likes of Banquo to follow him. Frances McDormand is a grim-faced Lady Macbeth who finds it hard to play the smiling hostess, and her descent into madness feels like an inevitable part of her character that was decreed right from the start. However, Ms McD revels in Shakespeare’s language and delivers her lines with verve and punch, whereas Mr W suppresses Macbeth’s emotions to the extent that some of the emphasis is lost.
Despite the occasional quibble I enjoyed this adaptation enormously, especially the ultra-noir atmosphere and visuals that never let up from the very start. A fine addition to the Shakespearean film collection.
Copyright for the images belongs of course to their rightful owner