With The Tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen and his longtime collaborators labor greatly to deliver a fresh take on the Shakespearean behemoth. Coen strips the legendary work down to the primer, opting for crisp shades of black and white, along with intimate settings that feel more theatrical than cinematic. The Bard’s thicket of Elizabethan dialogue becomes more conversational and modern in feel, which also weakens some of its musical beauty in the process. We’ll get a little more into that in a bit. Meantime, I’ll just say this is a robust, lively Macbeth that gives a new jolt to the 400-year-old source material.
For anybody who missed it in high school, the story takes us to ancient Scotland, in the immediate aftermath of a bloody battle. Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) have just vanquished the treasonous Thane of Cawdor. On that field of victory, they encounter three witches (Kathryn Hunter, playing all three), who offer a startling prophecy: Macbeth will one day be king, while the descendants of Banquo will sit on the the same throne. Jolted, the two men travel on to report their success to Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), the current king.
Although Banquo harbors no great desire for power, Macbeth is quickly consumed by dark ambitions. These treacherous flames get fanned by Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), who pushes her husband to do evil in the name of advancing his station. Duncan soon visits Macbeth’s castle, thus presenting the ambitious Thane with the opportunity to seize his destiny. The resulting murder and deceit plunges Macbeth and his consort into the spiritual abyss and sets the stage for a tragedy both epic and intimate in scope.
In the hands of Coen, this Macbeth moves with propulsive fury. Coen’s camera often stays tight on the principal subjects, an effect that supplies a strange urgency and theatrical immediacy that flows throughout the entire film. This gives the effect of being privy to a beautiful, brilliant production built for the stage. Almost all of the film is set on soundstages, and it shows, even in the bigger cinematic scenes.
Paradoxically, Coen’s artfully minimal approach also enhances the idea that this is a movie, in a way that would be lost in a live setting. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (a regular collaborator for the Coens, as well as Tim Burton) is a sure bet for an Academy Award nomination: His black and white palate feels both stark and unmistakably alive. Characters move in and out of the shadows with remarkable clarity, even dense fog is strangely beautiful. Coen does an impressive job of making this Macbeth feel supremely cinematic.
Tradition has long dictated that Black actors cast in Shakespearean works be British, but Coen breaks that rule from the top down: Washington is as famous as anyone to inhabit the title role, and his star power is gravimetric, as always. Even when Macbeth sinks into sullen despair, Washington grabs our attention with his vibrant charisma and never lets go. McDormand can match this casual confidence, playing Lady Macbeth as a woman possessed with a contemplative sense of evil. As a power couple, these two might not have the unhinged passion of other versions, but it actually works well with Coen’s chillier take on things. Hunter plays multiple roles of both men and women, and her work is absolute revelation. She’ll also snag award nominations, even though I’m not sure for which role.
All this adds up to a sturdy, compelling rendition of Macbeth. Coen’s vision will probably feel familiar, yet somehow distinctive. In his adaptation, Coen ensures that the dialogue flows naturally, and without the theatrical oomph other cinematic versions have displayed. Purists might take exception to this approach, as it makes the biggest soliloquies in the play feel powerful, but also less grand in scope. In my opinion, this realism only enhances Coen’s barren aesthetic: This is a lean and mean Macbeth, seemingly built for these erratic and frightening times.
105 min. R. Apple+.