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Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?

The Tragedy of Macbeth

(SPOILERS) The distinguishing title of this latest adaptation of the most (?) adapted Shakespeare play sounds like the setup of for a round of Whose Line Is it Anyway...? “The tragedy of Macbeth is…” that it’s a quite beautifully shot film, one where you can sink into each frame and luxuriate, yet its central relationship – the one that sparked the project in the first place, at least as far as the actress playing Mrs MacB is concerned – rather lacks the expected oomph.

Underplaying Hamlet, sure. That makes sense. But underplaying Macbeth and his lady wife? If there was ever a free pass to go for it, surely this was it. And absolutely: material this well serviced should be up for infinite variations of approach (albeit, it seems there are limits: “Look Tom, it shouldn’t get laughs” Baker was told when playing the Thane). The problem with both Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand is that they make their characters trajectories seem fait accompli, as if they’re so familiar with the play, there’s little point putting any extra effort into their journeys.

I rarely felt the conviction of Lady M’s determination to have her hubby become king – maybe when she returns to the scene of the murder after Macbeth refuses, maybe – and there was nary a pungent waft of her approaching mental deterioration. Likewise, I didn’t feel the doubt of Macbeth of the first part, or his growing confidence and determination as he gets deeper and deeper into his swamp of the second. Washington plays the title character in such a moderated, temperate fashion, right up until some gory locks are shook at him, that he failed to convince me of his conviction or lack thereof (that said, his performance is infinitely preferable to Fassbender’s OTT turn a few years back). One might reasonably have expected age and world-weariness to play a part in the characters – a good three or four decades older than the standard – but not in a manner that suggests borderline indifference.

In a sense, the surprise is that the inability to convey these shifts in psychology and motivation in a palpable manner – oh, so Lady M’s losing it now? I wouldn’t have notice if I hadn’t been told – isn’t more detrimental to the overall piece. That’s at least in part down to the consummate production. Coen’s Macbeth, shot on sound stages pregnant with fog, foreboding and portents, is spellbinding. The castle, rather than your usual draughty medieval dump, is a thing of striking elegance, all long shadows and divine symmetry. The compositions are frequently extraordinary, be it Lady Macbeth setting fire to her husband’s letter, which burning, takes to the starry skies, or Ross (Alex Hassell) searching for young Fleance (Lucas Barker) in a field of corn, or Macduff confronting Macbeth on pristine battlements, the latter attempting to retrieve his crown but losing his head. There’s been a surge in black-and-white prestige pictures in recent years, but often – Roma, Mank – the digital sheen has done nothing for the monochrome option. Bruno Delbonnel previously lensed Inside Llewyn Davis, and the expressionist precision of his work here is masterful.

In contrast with the spooksome atmosphere, Coen very much favours the in-the-mind madness approach to the play’s supernatural elements, such that even the three witches are shown as one (she casts two reflections in a pond); later, they appear to Macbeth above his bed, suggesting the second visitation is a fantasy on his part. The dagger he sees before him is splendidly visualised as the gleaming door handle to the king’s chamber. Banquo’s ghost is a fluttering bird transformed into a rampaging axeman.

Joel keeps his proceedings subdued and brooding for much of the time, such that, when there are eruptions, they have more impact. In that regard, he’s probably at his best and most fluid between the murder and the banquet; although he enjoys himself with Macbeth’s brief and brutal confrontation with Siward (Richard Short), you can feel he isn’t really buying into the Birnam Wood conceit. He keeps the porter (Stephen Root) scene, despite the pruning, presumably because he couldn’t bear to have no humour at all in the dour piece (the part is, it has to be said, Shakey at his most lowbrow).

The rest of the casting is variable. Brendan Gleeson is exactly as competent as you’d expect from such an obvious choice for Duncan. Corey Hawkins is exactly as unimpressive as you’d expect from the lead of 24: Legacy. But I also wondered if this nondescript quality was intentional on his director’s part, given the way he evidently and expressly inflates the non-role of Ross. Hassell – bizarrely so, on the face of it – completely steals the show as the generally functional messenger.

This is, in part, surely because he’s your bona fide RSC thesp. But it’s also clear that Coen considered there was untapped potential in the character, such that he knew he needed an actor who could not only represent the ambiguity of Ross’s allegiance, but also make a significant enough impression that the reveal of his saviour status would provide an effective twist.

Roman Polanski had Ross as the Third Murderer – I tend to the idea it was Macbeth himself, regardless of the scholarly objections to that take – and Joel, maybe nodding to his bloodthirsty cinematic forbear, takes up that baton. But then he prods it somewhere else entirely. Because the choice brings something new to the table, eking out hitherto unearthed terrain; it’s almost enough to call what is, in many respects, a staunchly trad telling “fresh” (certainly, one could picture Ross spying the lie of the land and playing the long game, surmising that the future is with the next generation and he needs to ensure he’s on the winning team, regardless of prophetic speeches. Which might be Macbeth’s QAnon, proving valid, but not in the way its staunchest believer hopes).

Despite that “freshness”, The Tragedy of Macbeth can’t get past the slightly underwhelming leads. In the end, this still seems as if it was done for “Well, why not?” reasons, rather than a genuine passion for the material, or an entirely individual take (as per Polanski). Joel’s made a very respectable version, but aside from its visual lustre, it’s hardly a remarkable one.

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