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The 50 best films of 2021 in the UK, No 10: The Tragedy of Macbeth

·2-min read

Joel Coen’s icy, black-and-white world of violence and pain is a triumph, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand at their peak

Joel Coen’s solo take on Shakespeare is a stark monochrome nightmare, refrigerated to an icy coldness. The text has been whittled; the drama is framed in theatrical, stylised ways: an agoraphobic ordeal in which bodies and faces loom up with tin-tack sharpness out of the creamy white fog.

Lady Macbeth is a role Frances McDormand was born to play

Frances McDormand is Lady Macbeth, a role she was born to play, bringing a hard-won domestic authority and her own sort of military determination to the plan to kill King Duncan. Macbeth is Denzel Washington, who portrays the Thane as already exhausted by his great triumph in the king’s cause at the very beginning, a moment at which he might be expected to look forward to retirement. Washington’s signature rolling swagger looks careworn, but his Macbeth submits to both the duplicitous supernatural promises and his wife’s demands, like a soldier taking his orders. And then, angry and paranoid, he escalates his fanatical rule with a series of pre-emptive murders, while McDormand’s Lady Macbeth retreats into horror and despair.

Related: O Brother, Where Art Thou? Revisiting the glory and silliness of the Coen brothers' classic

Washington takes the big speeches at an even pace, sometimes rolling over shades of meaning. He sees the floating dagger and the ghost of Banquo, but we don’t. McDormand is more specific and precise in her delivery. Interestingly, Coen lets the two do the cheeky “If we should fail? We fail!” line-reading, which isn’t strictly accurate but has an irresistibly modern sound. Unlike Justin Kurzel, Coen does not directly address the mystery of the couple’s childlessness but lets the issue hang in the air with Lady Macbeth’s lines about breastfeeding. And Coen offers an ingenious new theory about the identity and significance of the third murderer.

The movie hits its stride immediately with a taut, athletic urgency and it contains some superb images – particularly the eerie miracle of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, with Malcolm’s soldiers holding tree-branches over their heads in a restricted forest path and turning themselves into a spectacular river of boughs. This is a black-and-white world of violence and pain that scorches the retina.

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