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The Tragedy of Macbeth

"[Denzel Washington] and Frances McDormand deliver truly compelling performances"

★★★★½ - STUFF

- Washington, McDormand capture Shakespeare's sound and fury - 

Will Shakespeare’s Scottish play “full of sound and fury” and endlessly quotable dialogue that have entered the lexicon was once an extremely popular challenge for film-makers.

Between 1948 and 1971, no less than Welles, Kurasawa and Polanski tried their hand at bringing to life the rise and fall of “the Thane of Glamis”, with varying degrees of success.

But as Hollywood and others became more interested in Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet and the lighter fare of Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this tragedy kind of fell off the radar, until Justin Kurzel’s battlefield-set depiction in 2015 seemingly revived interest in its potential.

Enter Joel Coen, working for once without his brother Ethan, to deliver a far more austere, spare, but no less striking take on the now 415-year-old story.

It is still one general’s (and his scheming wife) pursuit of power – and desperate bid to retain it – after receiving a prophecy which offers him both hope and despair. Daggers are seen, courage has to be screwed “to the sticking place”, minds are “full of scorpions” and spots need getting “out”, as Coen cuts to the core of the story with editing as sharp as the monochromatic imagery he sumptuously offers up.

Going black-and-white (and shooting on sound stages) allows blasted heaths to really come to life, lines on faces to express so much, light, shadow and reflections to combine magnificently and Denzel Washington’s salt-and-pepper beard to shine (one truly memorable scene matches dripping blood perfectly to the sound of Washington’s boots as he stalks the castle’s thoroughfares).

Both he (performing the role apparently for the first time) and Frances McDormand (as Lady Macbeth) deliver truly compelling performances, ensuring no line is delivered without meaning, nuance, gravitas or purpose. While Shakespearean language may still be impenetrable to some, in their hands and mouths, their characters’ intent, desires and fears are crystal clear (and aided greatly by the playwright’s magnificent allusions and metaphors).

Also adding to a rich atmosphere of portent and potency, Coen regular Carter Burwell’s understated, haunting score is also a terrific example of this production’s winning less-is-more approach.

To me, this has the aura of the Macbeth Welles’ would have wanted to make. Not only are there echoes of his 1930s all-Black stage production (then dubbed Voodoo Macbeth), but this also feels like a companion, in style and tone to his much-troubled 1951 adaptation of Othello.

- James Croot, STUFF

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing at Light House Petone & Cuba!


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