I’m not sure what to make of the writing credit for this latest adaptation of Macbeth. The wording – ‘written for the screen by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare’ – seems a tad… hubristic. Because this is mostly Shakespeare’s work, albeit deftly sprinkled with some movie dust. Coen’s direction here is sublime, and his pared back adaptation works really well. It’s just, y’know. ‘Play by William Shakespeare; adapted for the screen by Joel Coen’ would sit better.
But it’s my only real gripe (if I overlook the absence of a single Scottish accent in the, ahem, Scottish play). This is the best movie version I’ve seen – and I have seen a lot. Although Shakespeare never specifies the Macbeths’ ages, I’ve tended towards the view that they ought to be young: all that swagger and ambition and impatience. When they’re portrayed as middle-aged, something seems to be lost. Here, both lord and lady are actually old: they’re in their sixties; nigh on retirement age. And it all starts to make sense again: this is a last-ditch attempt to fulfil their dreams. Time and place “have made themselves” and the Macbeths can’t resist the temptation to finally realise their desires.
Shot in black and white, Coen’s Macbeth is a claustrophobic affair, with none of the epic battle scenes I’ve grown used to seeing in big-screen adaptations. Indeed, it feels very theatrical, the castle walls as contained and constraining as any stage could be. We rarely venture out of Macbeth’s castle; when we do, it’s into countryside so swathed in mist that very little is visible. This is a stripped back version of the play, shining a spotlight on the key elements and emotions.
Denzel Washington is magnificent as the flawed hero: this is a towering performance, at once imposing and accessible. We can believe in him as a good man corrupted by greed, unable to live with his own actions. Likewise, Frances McDormand gives us a Lady Macbeth we can understand: she’s not presented here as a temptress, leading Macbeth to his doom, but as his partner, his equal, persuading him to indulge in a shared fantasy. The consequences are as devastating to her as they are to him.
Kathryn Hunter – playing all three witches – is perhaps my favourite thing about this production. She’s a gifted physical performer, and lends the shape-shifting ‘weird sisters’ a wonderful unearthly quality. Again, Coen’s judicious employment of theatrical devices (it can’t be incidental that Hunter has worked extensively with Complicité) makes for a compelling and unusual movie; this is a successful hybrid.
Coen only deviates from Shakespeare when it comes to Ross (Alex Hassell). A minor character in the original play, he appears here as a Machiavellian schemer, sidling up to where the power is, with one eye always on what might happen next. He’s Iago; he’s Tony Soprano; he’s Dominic Cummings. The additional layer really works.
In short, this is a triumph. It lays bare the heart of Shakespeare’s play. So, proceed further in this business; be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire, and get yourself to the cinema. This is too good to miss.