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Joel Coen's masterful adaptation of Macbeth brings out the immense power of Shakespeare's words


BWW Review: THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, In Cinemas Washed out in monochrome and regularly punctuated by blackouts and searing white light, Joel Coen creates an eerie world somewhere between Hell and Earth on which Macbeth and his Lady perform their high-wire act of ruthless ambition before toppling into the abyss.

There's often nothing to look at other than the actors (at best, we see the kind of interiors one finds in the most austere Protestant cathedrals of Northern Europe), but that paucity of colour and decoration focuses the eyes and ears on the faces and the voices. Words, never shouted, always weighed, demand our attention - and what words!

Coen's aesthetic has elements of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev and Stalker, but is nevertheless thrillingly unique, each shot composed with palpable care, fitting into a singleminded vision of an auteur at the top of his game. Sure it's both Shakespeare and arthouse in terms of genres, but there's never a moment's self-indulgence, never a demand made that does not bring a hugely satisfying payoff.

Denzel Washington is dumbfounded to be elevated to Thane of Cawdor, the camera picking out the merest twitch in the face (so much is done in the tiniest movements filmed in unobtrusive close up) and brilliantly conveys the doubt that floods through him, before his wife sets both of them towards their fates. Frances McDormand is equally adept at revealing so much with so little, the madness in the eyes rather than in the gesture, even the OCD hand-washing is barely noticeable. It's here that casting two actors in late middle age pays off.

If Brendan Gleeson as Duncan ups the Celt count early on, the decision to allow each actor to speak in their own accents works surprisingly well. Every word is given its full value, standing alone, within a sentence and, better than I've ever heard on stage, within the rhythm of speeches that are sometimes whispered, but never mumbled. Amongst an audience of about 30 in the cinema, I could not hear breathing, never mind sweet wrappers and popcorn, so intent was attention applied to the screen.

Corey Hawkins' understated reaction to news of Macduff's castle's sacking sets the tone for his showdown on Dunsinane's ramparts, Macbeth meeting his nemesis in combat. Though the fight is beautifully photographed by Bruno Delbonnel, the obvious double for Denzel strikes the only false note across the zippy 105 minutes running time. Perhaps a slightly underwhelming climax is the price we pay for the extraordinary opening, Kathryn Hunter contorting both her body and voice into all three witches in a heartstopping cameo.

The only other misstep in a dazzling movie is the inexplicable award of a 15 certificate which will bar too many bright teens from a perfect introduction not just to Shakespeare, but to the power of language and visuals balanced in perfect harmony, the craft of filmmaking seldom bettered. Given what passes for 12A these days, that's a misguided decision. But if you're 15 or over, see it - and see it on a big screen.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is on general release

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From This Author Gary Naylor