The Tragedy of Macbeth
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins
Writers: Joel Coen (adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play)
Director: Joel Coen
In theaters now; streaming on Apple TV+ January 14
The best films provide a series of moments, each memorable and unique, that, strung together, create a whole of seamless artistry. Such films don’t come along often, but such a film is Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth — a retelling of a much-told tale that, miraculously, somehow convinces us it is being told for the first time.
Related in crisp black and white, the shortest of William Shakespeare’s tragedies unspools in a brisk hour-and-three-quarters. The sets, really little more than areas of foreboding darkness arranged against angular swatches of glaring light, are as spare as the plot — a straightforward tale of ambition, obsession, and betrayal that nevertheless casts an iambic x-ray on the heart of human folly.
Denzel Washington, his close-cropped hair peppered with the snows of age, breathes bitter life into the character of Macbeth. Urged on by three truly horrifying witches (all played by British stage legend Kathryn Hunter), Macbeth morphs from a decorated warrior in the service of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) to a treacherous traitor who will stop at nothing to sit on Duncan’s throne. The transition, one of the more difficult in theater history, is indecipherable here; Washington’s Macbeth seems as surprised as we are by the ease with which he moves from faithful servant to fearsome assassin.
Of course, it helps to have one of literature’s premier scolds in your corner. As Lady Macbeth, Frances McDormand cuts a positively indomitable figure: Eyes aflame, jaw set firm as a castle gate, this is a woman who will strike fear into even a general of the king’s army.
Even Shakespeare knew the peril of being a supporting player to masters like Washington and McDormand: Whenever a “well-graced actor leaves the stage,” he observed in Richard II, the audience is “idly bent on him that enters next, thinking his prattle to be tedious.” Strong leads demand, perhaps, even stronger secondary actors, and Coen has cast an abundance of them. Besides Gleeson’s hearty-yet-commanding presence as King Duncan, Corey Hawkins brings heartbreaking poignancy to Macduff, Macbeth’s old friend-turned mortal enemy. There’s a tragic beauty to Moses Ingram’s turn as the doomed Lady Macduff. And Bertie Carvel is captivating as Banquo, the murder victim whose ghost ruins Macbeth’s celebratory dinner.
One more word must be said of Hunter, who plays not only all three of the “weird sisters” who launch Macbeth on his reign of self-destructive terror, but also one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing minor characters, the sage fellow known only as “Old Man.” He has just one short speech, after the murder of the king, and is one of the few characters with no dog in the fight for power and influence. Yet entrusted into the care of Hunter, Old Man becomes a haunting oracle. He leaves the scene as abruptly as he arrived, yet Hunter’s reading of Old Man’s words hang over every remaining minute of the film.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has been nominated for five Oscars prior to Macbeth — if he doesn’t win it this time for his striking images of production designer Stefan Dechant’s evocatively minimalist sets, they may as well melt down the statuette and sell it for bling.
Fast paced yet deliberate, violent yet pensive, Coen’s Macbeth is one Shakespeare adaptation you may well see today and then crave to experience again “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”
Featured image: Denzel Washington as Macbeth (A24/Apple TV+)
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