Apple TV+ film review: The Tragedy of Macbeth
Written by Arthur
Joel Coen nightmarish take on Shakespeare’s tragedy is stark, spellbinding cinema.
Director: Joel Coen Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Kathryn Hunter, Bertie Carvel, Harry Melling, Corey Hawkins Certificate: 15
“When shall we three meet again – in thunder, lightning or in rain?” That’s the question that begins The Tragedy of Macbeth, as the three witches gather to muse on the fate of Macbeth. As the fog clears, though, the trio emerge as one, a contorting, twisting, rasping figure (played hauntingly by Kathryn Hunter) who is part crow, part human and whose reflection refracts into three and whose voices speak at different octaves. That bold, unsettling introduction gives one of literature’s most familiar passages an unsettling new chill – and sets the tone for what emerges as a haunting, nightmarish vision of Shakespeare’s classic play.
“The earth has bubbles, as the water has, and these are of them,” warns Banquo (Bertie Carvel), and there’s a real feeling throughout Joel Coen’s production that it’s all set within one such bubble – a space that’s at once endless and claustrophobic, shifting and changing with an unnatural precision. The idea that Joel Coen would make a film without Ethan Coen is almost as surprising as this text being Joel’s choice for his solo directorial debut, but the play’s cycle of greed, killing and consequences sits comfortably alongside the Coen brothers’ catalogue – and the story’s noir-tinged sense of foreboding feeds right into the stark monochrome visuals. There are elements of Dreyer, Kurosawa, Welles and more in the mix, but Coen and DoP Bruno Delbonnel craft something that’s entirely their own, reducing every sequence to the bare minimum, stripping out unnecessary details until everything becomes at once searingly specific and dizzyingly abstract
The opening word – “When” – is writ large on the screen, followed later by “Tomorrow”. The idea of time running out seeps through the sound design, all resounding booms, ticking pulses, dripping blood and echoing footsteps. That only heightens the ominous chiaroscuro lighting and the remarkable set design, which turn Macbeth’s castle into a labyrinthine modernist freak-out, with an Escher-like quality that recalls the impossible architecture of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Arches and doorways throw the screen into shadow as much as they open up pools of stark, unflinching light, and the almost-square aspect ratio highlights the sharp angles and confined spaces, with Coen increasingly positioning his would-be king between lines and walls that close in on him, increasingly restricting his options and choices.
If all this sounds impenetrable, the remarkable thing about The Tragedy Macbeth is that it’s anything but – for all its artistic flourishes, it keeps the focus on Shakespeare’s text. The cast respond accordingly, sinking their teeth into the Bard’s delicious turns of phrase. Denzel Washington plays Macbeth as a wonderfully intimidating soldier, who is already weary but swaggers his way through the Wyrd Sisters’ prophecies with a growing confidence – that he will become Thane of Cawdor and, ultimately, king. He’s backed by Frances McDormand’s encouraging Lady Macbeth, until she realises the horror of what they’re doing. They have the lived-in chemistry of a long-married couple, and their visible age adds a desperate note to their tragic power play that’s far from the melancholic grief that powered Justin Kurzel’s physical, scorched-earth interpretation of the material in 2015.
The supporting cast is equally full of sound of fury, with every line of dialogue signifying something. Harry Melling (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) adds a note of noble worthiness to the young Malcolm, another contender for the throne, while Carvel gives Banquo real humanity, and Alex Hassell steals every scene going as the deliberately enigmatic Ross. The standout, perhaps, is Corey Hawkins, who is superbly heartfelt as Macduff and brings a heart-wrenching impact to his best scenes.
And, above them all, hovers Hunter’s menacing presence, which billows out into a storm of birds that is always swarming overhead. The result is an elemental, psychological piece of cinema, one that finds a brutal poetry in this tale of ambition and retribution that’s absolutely spellbinding.