A monochrome retelling of Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy Of Macbeth is heavy on style and star power, if low on drama and jeopardy. Denzel Washington takes on the mantle of the Scottish lord: a military man coerced into killing his King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) by his scheming wife played by Frances McDormand. He is emboldened in his task by the words of three witches, all here played rather creepily by a contorting Kathryn Hunter, who foretells that he will be King until woods move against him, and can be killed by no-one of woman born.
Anyone who has done GCSE English will know how this all pans out. In this version, all stark black and white emptiness – impressively theatrical, relentlessly sombre and po-faced – the characters remain somewhat inert. There’s no hint at what makes Macbeth follow his wife’s ambitions: Washington, thankfully without attempting an accent, is great as Macbeth begins to lose his grip on reality, but his reasoning to jump in, his weaknesses and love for his wife are left unexplored.
Director Joel Coen, operating solo without his brother Ethan, does create some bravura moments. The witches’ cauldron becomes Macbeth’s chamber, while a search for the child Fleance through a cornfield is full of menace – but there is no jeopardy, stakes or believability about why things happen. Everyone is very reverent with the text, and it’s the cinematic, less Shakespearean moments that resonate; otherwise, earnestness prevails.
Bertie Carvell and some very eccentric eyebrows make a mark as Banquo, as does Alex Hassell as a conniving Ross, but the American actors involved are too precious with it all. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a swift but mostly stodgily staged; a whispered version of the play that owes a lot to Orson Welles’ 1948 film. Shakespeare can be much more vibrant than this.
Dir: Joel Coen (15) (107 mins)
Streaming on Apple+ from Fri 14 Jan
words KEIRON SELF
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