One of the creative touchstones of any new Macbeth is how it portrays the three witches whose predictions so unnerve Macbeth they edge him towards murder and insanity.
Former Adelaide director Justin Kurzel, in his realist 2015 version, had them as Romany gypsies who stood shrouded in mist as they wondered aloud when we three would meet again.
Joel Coen, writing and directing without his filmmaker brother Ethan, has them as crows, portrayed with mesmerising sinuousness by a contortionist stage actress in her 60s, Kathryn Hunter, whose legs snake around her face while her arms bend askew at odd angles. Her gravelly prophesies set the tone for the darkness to come. It is an unforgettable opening.
This Macbeth is more of a play than Kurzel’s film, which used the open moors and the drama of landscape as the setting for the ferocious ambition that drove the Macbeths. Coen has filmed in black and white, and the events unfold inside a castle with soaring ceilings, massive doors and virtually no furniture or ornamentation. Everything is in half light, mist and swirling fog, like a fever dream made from ice.
Denzel Washington as Macbeth is an absolute gift. He conveys the battle-weary Thane of Cawdor’s uneasy temperament and ambition without flourish and with conviction. He also brings unusual intelligence to Shakespeare’s language, using tone and phrasing to break down the meaning so the words are conversational rather than speech.
The interior aspect means we focus closely on what happens as Macbeth, at his Lady’s urgings, drives a knife into the throat of King Duncan (a cameo from Brendan Gleeson) and will blame the guards whose drinks his wife has spiked.
Coen is married in life to Frances McDormand, also a producer, and she was always to play the role Lady Macbeth. Yet there is something about her androgynous, no-nonsense persona that worked so well in Nomadland that here is a hurdle that must be overcome. Her performance is impeccable but McDormand is no femme fatale fuelling her man’s ambition and it was hard to be convinced of her seductive, manipulative powers.
That hesitation aside, this is a marvellous, haunting, austere production stripped back to its baseline coda of violence and ambition with all the clutter gone. We see Macbeth lose his judgment and kill the guards who were supposed to be the cover story while Lady Macbeth realises with horror what he has done. One murder leads to another in this vision of hell and as the ghost of Banquo appears, madness has set in and Macbeth and his Lady are damned.
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in cinemas nationally on Boxing Day and on Apple TV+ from January 14.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.