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The Tragedy of Macbeth LFF Film Review



While Shakespeare’s plays make some of us watch the clock, the right hands can bring the material into electrical new life, extracting the power and lucidity of the writing. Joel Coen’s debut as a solo director, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is a staggering achievement of both cinematic and theatrical feat.

Under Coen’s direction, we feel confined to the paranoid tensions of the castle walls while also morally lost in the empty landscape. It’s both claustrophobic and agoraphobic as a visual experience. The Coen Brothers have always excelled at translating paranoia; in The Tragedy of Macbeth, a bare, haunting soundscape is conjured from the dripping of Duncan’s blood, like some form of psychological water torture. Madness is inescapable.

Denzel Washington delivers a highly original take on the lead, his nonchalance all the more unsettling given the character’s nihilism, a dormant egomania nurtured within his casualness. Frances McDormand is sensational as Lady Macbeth. McDormand claims that her acting career has been leading up to this performance ever since she was a teenager, and there’s the shadow of a retrospective McDormand palpable within the role. In the film, the tragic couple have a sense of desperate urgency, to make the most of whatever life they have left, as though they’ve spent their whole careers fighting and the war still isn’t over. Kathryn Hunter also deserves praise for her performance as the Witches, her crow-like contortions and voice carrying with it a blend of gravel and tar, her entire characterisation so perfect and otherworldly. Joel Coen’s production (with is band of talented players) respects the dramatic authority of the original play, its language and rich characters always being at the forefront.

It's not too much of a surprise that out of all Shakespeare’s plays, Joel Coen was especially drawn to Macbeth, the way it oddly prefigures the mid-century American Noirs which later influenced the Coen Brothers; the play’s emphasis on obsession, greed, murder and consequence paves the way for the Modern Crime Tragedy. And while The Tragedy of Macbeth draws from cinematic inspiration - with a nod to Orson Welles and Carl Dreyer - it is also steeped in theatrical self-consciousness. The looming, abstracted castle walls appear partly inspired by the set designs of Edward Gordon Craig, a theatre practitioner at the start of the 20th century whose modernist set designs imbued Shakespeare with the idiom of a dream, discarding realism, having the set become an extension of the characters’ interior.

The film’s minimal but carefully stylised set-pieces (the entire film was shot within sound-stages) transforms Scotland into an existential wasteland, and really the film and design have little to do with Scotland. Even the castle appears as architectural fragments amid a vast smokey landscape, denying the audience any concrete sense of place. It’s remarkable how much of Bruno Delnonnel’s photography makes use of negative space (empty skies, bare walls, fog-swept fields) to convey Macbeth’s self-negation, as well as the kingdom’s decline. Interior and exterior scenes collide together (Macbeth’s throne-room slowly morphs into a forrest), the boundaries eroding between private and public disorder. Stefan Dechant’s production design and Delnonnel’s imagery work together to reinforce the stark majesty of the film.

A ground-breaking contribution to the canon of Shakespeare adaptions, The Tragedy of Macbeth proves that theatre and cinema can be reconciled without compromising the spirit of the source. The film rightfully closes this year’s London Film Festival, but no doubt its power will linger in our minds ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’.



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