Director: Joel Coen
Writer: Joel Coen
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, and Brendan Gleeson
Joel Coen’s first film without his brother Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is a truly unique and striking adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play. It’s been over 400 years since the play was first staged, and Coen manages to bring something new to the table. It’s the most deliberate and stylish film in Joel Coen’s career, which is really saying something when you look at the varied films he’s been involved with.
The story is so well known, telling the story of a prophecy from three witches and the murder and betrayal that follows. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most studied tragedies in schools around the world. What Coen brings to the film is pure style and atmosphere. The film is shot in black and white, with every set created on a sound stage. It looks like something that could have been made a hundred years ago as part of the German expressionism movement, and it’s gorgeous. The film creates this otherworldly effect that transfixes you through the story, whether you’ve seen/read it countless times, or this is your first introduction to the timeless classic tragedy.
Each scene’s set is minimalist, and bare, but at the same time eye catching and striking to look at. From the hazy and foggy battlegrounds in the early moments to the unbelievable scale of Macbeth’s castle, it reflects that this was originally written to be performed on a stage, while at the same time capturing the story in a way that can on be done on the screen. The way scenes move from one to another, sometimes layered on top and at other points changing through fog, it’s pure cinematic genius all the way through. Joel Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel have done an exceptional job at creating something that is completely unique to look at while steeped in the history of not only Macbeth, but cinema itself.
It’s not just technically where the film excels, the cast are unbelievably fantastic. Denzel Washington brings a gravitas to the character Macbeth through his delivery that commands the screen. Frances McDormand is great in everything she’s in and gives one of the best performances of her career. They both work so well together, and you can feel the connection between them. Everyone who steps onto the screen makes Shakespeare’s language sound so natural, even if you’ve not experienced the story before. It’s not the most accessible way to see the story, but the poetry of the language will seep over you and you’ll be completely absorbed into a world that you don’t want to leave when the ending arrives. On a side note, I’m not very familiar with the play Macbeth, although I’ve studied a fair few of Shakespeare’s plays and read others in my own time. I did find it easier to put the subtitles on to ease me into everything, but I was completely involved very quickly.
Joel Coen’s take on Macbeth absolutely excels in creating a dreamlike otherworldly atmosphere and is one of the best visual experiences in film in recent memory. The minimalist sets are striking and the sense of scale at the end during the climactic fight scenes is simply stunning. There are also some excellent fight scenes, that are tense and thrilling. This is something that will stay with you well after the film finishes and the dark gothic visuals will haunt you.
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