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The Tragedy of Macbeth

Joel Coen’s debut cinematic venture without his brother Ethan is far from a midsummer night’s dream: it’s a harrowing liminal nightmare.

Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is a far cry from the lush, decadent reimaginings of Zaferelli and Luhrman.

Set in a strange nowhere land, it stars Denzel Washington as the eponymous hero and Frances McDormand as the formidable Lady Macbeth. Shot entirely in black and white in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it’s a tour-de-force in minimal staging, proving you don’t need large, ornate set dressings to carry a compelling narrative.

The Tragedy of Macbeth knowingly never compromises on its artificiality. The castles are vast, empty realms of white pillars and cavernous doorways that characters become lost in. Outside scenes take place in carefully constructed sound stages, adding to the fierce uncanniness that runs throughout the film. It’s ‘the outside world’ and yet so obviously, each blade of grass, boulder and tree is false.

The stage-like mise-en-scene not only renders the film eerily untrue, but also speaks back to Shakespeare’s roots and to the beginnings of classical Hollywood. It’s both very much an unwavering theatrical production on screen and a love letter to classical filmmaking.

The adaptation that focuses on the deeply unsettling, disorienting nature of Macbeth, so the scarce surroundings leave the tumultuous social tensions and descents into madness to take centre stage. Despite there being a few instances of blood and violence, the battles are not a focus of Coen’s world of Macbeth. Instead he steers the viewer towards the uncomfortable disorientation of the narrative of madness and the supernatural. It’s within a blank world that the behaviours and interactions of characters are elevated to the heights of attention.

A special mention must be given to Shakespeare veteran Kathryn Hunter in her portrayal of the Three Witches. She brings a massively physical performance to the screen, contorting her body and voice to almost inhuman levels. It results in something immensely powerful and uncomfortable, further adding to the eerie atmosphere.

This is a powerful and deeply perturbing piece of cinema, using its awareness of insincerity to transform itself into a cross between a harrowing nightmare and an unflinching work of fine art. Whether it's the surreal storytelling, haunting performances or the sheer uneasiness generated by Coen’s work, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a macabre purgatory that’s hard to look away from.

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