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in a The tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen steps away from Shakespeare’s script, shortening each scene with its grumpy core. At 105 minutes, that’s shorter Macbeth movie of most. The most famous lines are still there, of course – “Is this a dagger I see before me” and all the rest. But the story of the murderous Macbeth’s rise to power is told with ruthless focus.
The visuals are as stark and abstract as the text. Quinn and his cinematographer Bruno Delponnell evoke the look of old films with a spectral black-and-white palette and a semi-square frame. Carter Burwell’s score sets an ominous mood, complemented by what sounds like the executioner’s drumbeat.
It is a pure piece of craftsmanship. The look and feel of the movie cast a spell. Sometimes you may be reminded of Orson Welles ‘1948 Macbeth, as well as Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful 1957 novel, blood throne. However, Quinn’s biggest influence here is Carl Theodor Dreyer, the stern Danish director who delved deeply into the tormented souls of his characters.
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play tormented spirits here, and it’s wonderful to watch two of our most famous actors emerge from the expressive shadows of this film. Washington and McDormand are both in their 60s, somewhat older than most of the actors portrayed as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Thus, there is a greater sense of futility than their murderous plot against the king, Duncan, while he is a guest in their house. Macbeth’s reign of terror will be short-lived.
Not much has changed: Macbeth does the terrible job and seizes power, unleashing a brutal series of violence. At some point, he turned to the three old mage who first predicted that he would become a King. The Three Witches are played by English stage actress Catherine Hunter, whose remarkable performance, with her fearsome tones and squiggly gestures, gives this film its darkest charm.
Quinn’s representation of Macbeth’s sequence with the witches was ingenious: Instead of showing us the witches stirring their fate, he puts them in the rafters like birds, looming over Macbeth, while the floor under his feet turns into a cauldron of bubbles. Time and time again, the director takes on some of the most famous moments in theater history and gives them a sense of abstraction. Macbeth’s Castle looks like something out of a surrealist painting, with its rows of symmetrical arches and bold contrasts of light and dark.
As charming as the movie may sound, the production design never beats the cast. McDormand brings her usual steely balance to Lady Macbeth, causing her to break apart the most. And Washington is great: I was afraid this role might call for a lot of prop bellows, but until hell breaks loose in the final act, the actor drops beautifully. Washington plays Macbeth as an old man lost in a mist of bloodshed. He mutters Shakespeare’s language as if it were flowing from somewhere deep within himself.
The rest of the dazzling ensemble brings together actors from both stage and screen. Brendan Gleeson plays the doomed, unsuspecting Duncan with a true royal air, while Bertie Carvel brings needed oomph into the role of Banquo, a close friend and battle companion who will be betrayed by Macbeth. She loved the liveliness of young Corey Hawkins as Macduff, a rival who would help bring Macbeth’s reign to its bloody end.
Like many of the films Joel Coen made with his brother Ethan, The tragedy of Macbeth It was directed at him within an inch of his life, which robs her of some emotional sway. Sometimes I wanted to stay longer in this dark world, to let its scales seep completely into my bones. However, there is no denying that Kuhn has the right mood for these ominous Shakespearean plays. Add it to the many stories he told of men lost in tragedies of their own making.