Film reviews: The Tragedy of Macbeth | The Humans | The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the Macbeths, Joel Coen’s take on the Scottish play is inventive but ultimately unsatisfying, writes Alistair Harkness

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth (15) ***

The Humans (15) ****

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (PG) **

Starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, the Scottish play gets a stark makeover in The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s stripped-down take on Shakespeare’s treacherous tale of vaulting ambition and maddening guilt. Unlike Justin Kurzel’s recent muddy, bloody update with Michael Fassbender, this version embraces its stage origins, with Coen shooting in monochrome on minimalist sets that he lights like a Fritz Lang movie – all white space and sinister shadows.

His decision to use the boxy academy aspect ratio is an intriguing one too, transforming the screen into a cage-like proscenium, one that lets us observe the characters in uncomfortable close-up, trapped by fate and rapidly disassembling. And his older stars change the dynamic as well: Washington’s Macbeth is a more pitiable figure, a career-stalled soldier eaten up with jealousy, while McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is now a hardened co-conspirator whose swift slide into madness following her husband’s regicidal tendencies hints at early stage dementia rather than the more common subtextual explanations that tend to locate her decline in her childless life.

This is all potent territory for Coen, directing for the first time without brother Ethan. But while he revels in the stylistic challenge of making a traditional Macbeth film shot through with crime movie conventions (there’s a definite through-line with the Coen brothers’ cerebral films about bad people caught in downward spirals of their own making), the chilly insularity that can sometimes render the Coen brothers’ oeuvre easier to admire than love is evident too, with Washington and McDormand’s subdued line readings and performances oddly disconnected from the source material's dagger-to-the-heart intensity.

Also based on a play, The Humans sees its author Stephen Karam transform his 2016 Tony Award-winner into a stunningly cinematic chamber piece tracking the gradual unravelling of a stoically sad family over the course of Thanksgiving dinner. Setting the expressionistic tone with a cork-screwing camera shot into the courtyard of an oddly shaped block of flats, the film wastes no time drilling down into the lives of the Blake family, whose decision to gather for the holidays in the run-down New York apartment of youngest daughter Brigette (Beanie Feldstein) soon unleashes a tsunami of passive-aggressive point scoring.

The Humans PIC: Linda Kallerus

Economics, religion, illness, betrayal and unacknowledged PTSD are at the root of their collective woes as Brigette’s city-hating father (Richard Jenkins), God-fearing mother (Jayne Houdyshell), chronically unhappy sister (Amy Schumer) and Alzheimer’s afflicted grandmother (June Squibb) struggle to keep a lid on their troubles for the sake of family unity. It’s brilliantly acted across the board (as Brigette’s medicated boyfriend, Steven Yuen is like the amusingly calm centre of this particular storm) and Karam’s directorial flourishes tease out the psychological nuances of his script in ways that transcend any hint of staginess.

Benedict Cumberbatch produces and stars in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a quirky, kitchy, somewhat chaotic biopic of the late Victorian illustrator famous for his cute portraits of cats. Playing Wain as a frantic eccentric whose misfiring brain lets him see the world in a different way from everyone else, he’s a degree or so away from Sherlock or Alan Turing or Thomas Edison or any of the other maverick outsiders he’s played.

Alas, this film doesn’t make much of a case for why we should care about Wain or his legacy, nor does it make much of a case for him being a true artist as opposed to a good artist, as Tim Burton’s Big Eyes did for the similarly populist, similarly scorned painter Margaret Keane. Wain’s feline affinities are more of a personality quirk, a short-hand way of signifying the undiagnosed mental health issues that perhaps made him ill-equipped to deal with the patriarchal responsibilities of providing for his household of shrill sisters or processing the grief he clearly struggled with following his wife’s early death from cancer.

Co-writer and director Will Sharpe gives the film a kind of manic energy that might be appropriate for his subject, but is exhausting to watch. Toby Jones, Claire Foy and Andrea Riseborough co-star.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is on select release from 26 December and streams on AppleTV+ from 14 January; The Humans is available on demand on Curzon Home Cinema from 24 December and in cinemas from 29 December; The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is in cinemas from 1 January

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