Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Something wicked this way comes…another reimagining of a Shakespeare play, with one of the Coen brothers at the helm. Joel Coen’s first solo directorial feature swerves the footsteps of countless Scottish Play adaptations and operates in a world of its own. For Coen’s vision is a precise reimagining that embraces its source material in a satisfying marriage of stage and screen. The writer-director finds cinematic weight in the Scottish Play, using minimalist sound stages as the canvas for this wrathful tale of ambition. Emotion takes center stage through the vessels of mighty performances, from Denzel Washington’s majestic Macbeth to Kathryn Turner’s frightening Three Witches. The actors bring commanding performances to surface, ready to play when the lights come on and giving their all before darkness falls. The Tragedy of Macbeth takes a long day’s journey into night in what feels like a continuous take, the transitions between scenes so seamless. It’s a bleak and witty adaptation, that may feel out of reach with heavy dialogue, but grows into an absorbing piece of visual storytelling.
The story begins with a foretelling. After receiving a prophecy from a trio of witches (Hunter), Macbeth (Washington) becomes convinced that he will soon become King of Scotland. He will make it so without a moment’s haste, as he doesn’t have much time. Consumed by ambition and encouraged by his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), Macbeth plans precisely to take the throne for himself. The film opens to the cue of a beaming light switching on. A great sensory detail that automatically makes the viewer think of theatre. Characters are hatching plans and scurrying in what feels like a film noir rabbit hole, some otherworldly place where nothing else matters but action spurred by prophecy. Coen manages to capture the level of intimacy that can be felt watching a stage production, wherein magic comes from the performers being so present and in the moment. What he also does is capture the power of Shakespeare’s words, not by way of dramatic revision but by surrounding them with rich visual storytelling and a more-than-capable ensemble of mostly veteran actors.
Denzel Washington as Macbeth is remarkable casting. His charisma and presence are instant, a most compelling lead to carry this journey of ambitious cunning. Just by watching this character, it is crystal clear he carries the witches’ prophecy in his veins. Washington brings an all-knowing quality, a sense of being consumed by the power of fate. It’s a magnificent performance, one of his very best and among one of the most personalized Shakespearian portrayals. In the role of Lady Macbeth is another vet, Frances McDormand. She brings sparkling wit and shares in Washington’s all-knowing quality, which makes for another example of fine casting. Making it look easy, she traces her character’s intentions to a place of unraveling madness. Whenever McDormand and Washington share the screen, sparks fly watching two of the greatest living actors embody rich text in a way that looks effortless.
Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Kathryn Turner in The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Though it’s expected McDormand gels with the direction of her partner, and it’s not surprising that the talent in this cast shine, it’s really a treat to watch how well everyone works with Coen’s vision. The Tragedy of Macbeth has a powerful ensemble, each actor shining regardless of how big or small the role. From Corey Hawkins (Macduff) and Alex Hassell (Ross) to Moses Ingram (Lady Macduff), there’s a sparkle in all their work here, and they leave anticipation for more greatness to come. Then there’s theatre veteran Kathryn Turner playing all three witches, otherwise known as The Weird Sisters. Turner’s performance is unlike anything I have seen on screen or anywhere. It’s such an immaculate and literally shapeshifting portrayal, from the depth’s of a nightmare. Her physicality is astounding and makes every contorting movement a marvel. Turner utilizes the quality of being all-knowing to a scary extent, pulling from a world known by no other. Coen’s visual storytelling compliments the entire cast as well. It’s so easy to feel absorbed by their actions and thoughts, of course a testament to their talent but also with the added weight of striking imagery.
The influence of 1940s movies is strong in Coen’s direction, especially given the ratio and transitioning between scenes as they bleed into one another. The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a different, more experimental effort from the dark humor often found in Coen’s works. This is not to say his latest has none. He maintains a dash of silliness, not taking the Scottish play so completely seriously in every moment. In this story is the demise of fools, running to their prophetic futures as if there is no tomorrow. There is something about the setting of Coen’s production that makes it feel like an abyss, if you were to zoom out you’d see the characters scurrying for power in a grayish maze. With the use of minimal set design and lots of silhouettes, all the shadowing is gorgeous. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography gives a visual to night and morning being at odds. The score by Carter Burwell is brilliant; meshing with the sounds of footsteps, drops of water and blood, mirroring actions so well.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is told with such persuasion it’s easy to be swept away by Coen’s reimagining of the text. It’s a compelling adaptation with majestic performances, and remarkably minimal set design contrasting the weight piled onto characters’ shoulders. There’s enough material to feel totally consumed by their actions and thoughts as they scheme for political gain. It’s a stunning achievement that manages to tread a fine line between a stage production and screen adaptation, finding its own space for the performers to play. And play they do. When the light switches off and a flock of ominous crows take flight, comes the sudden realization that The Tragedy of Macbeth pulls off an impressive feat.
The Tragedy of Macbeth arrives in theaters December 25 and on Apple TV January 14.