The plot for “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” adapted from William Shakespeare’s classic play, is almost too familiar to waste space for explanation. Even so, the basic premise sees Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington), a well-respected soldier, spurred by three witches’ prophecy and the aspirations of his wife, the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), transfixed by an ambition for the Scottish crown. The married couple careens through a vicious string of killings, leading to the deterioration of their very souls. For Joel Coen, as with any director, but especially without his brother Ethan, the trick is to put one’s own stamp on a set of proceedings that’s already passed through Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, etc.
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Coen’s version of “Macbeth” is shot in a resonating black and white, with a 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, and features, possibly, the two greatest actors of their generation working through a poetic vocabulary that forms the very basis of them as performers. Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is the bleakest iteration of the play, yet amid the gorgeous monochrome photography, retains the playwright’s consummate wit for a thrillingly original adaptation.
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The tone of “Macbeth,” often, is set by the witches. Eschewing parody, Coen’s distinct use is the first sign of his version’s originality. Seemingly three voices crackle to open the film, only for one witch (Kathryn Hunter) to be revealed. Hunter, contorted in a ball, unwinds, modulating her voice to fit each sorceress as each bone cracks. Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) magically emerge from the fog to discover this witch, who, in a great visual trick, becomes three by reflecting two others on the water of a bog. Macbeth and Banquo are given two prophecies: Macbeth will become king, but Banquo will have a royal line.
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You could teach a masterclass for how Denzel chews over the prediction: Does he play Macbeth as distrustful or hopeful the vision is true? The veteran actor opts for the latter, making the decision by King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) to name Malcolm (Harry Melling) his heir, a poetic cascade of resentment on the part of Macbeth.
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Typically, younger actors play Macbeth and his Lady, pressing upon the spirit of ambitious youth scorned by their betters. But in casting Denzel and McDormand, Coen accesses a different register: They’re the dutiful older couple, who’ve watched the younger, less able lieutenants garner the glory and titles, and now they’re in the winter of their lives. That component imbues Denzel’s performance with a level of wistfulness and McDormand with an overwhelming doggedness that pushes for a different, richer dynamic contour, allowing Denzel to underplay the “Tomorrow” soliloquy, and even the “born of mother” reveal with a deeper sense of forlornness.
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In black and white McDormand’s visage works on an enrapturing level. She’s always had a talent for sharp glances that could eviscerate her worst enemies, and the lighting only adds greater terror to her wrath. Lady Macbeth, for those unfamiliar with the literary terrain, spurs Macbeth to murder the King and further advises him to annihilate Banquo and his sons. But it’s her descent into madness, always the highest hill for any actress in the part to climb, that’s a free-form song of yowls and fearful movements by McDormand that is thrilling.
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The film’s 4:3 aspect ratio almost imitates, aesthetically, a similarly confined fright. It also, visually, copies the barriers of the verse-laden page. We have entered a movie world, and yet it remains distinctly literary. Coen relies on German Expressionist nods: dramatic angles, minimalist sets, and distorted compositions — mixed with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s sharp monochrome photography — the blackened shadows could easily sink a continent into an abyss — to further immerse the viewer in this nightmarish narrative. Coen also, refreshingly, depends upon colorblind casting and cares little for consistent accents.
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This cast is composed of Americans, the Irish, Scottish, and English: pointing to the effect the playwright’s words have marked on both sides of the Atlantic. Each actor brings a different school of approaching Shakespeare to this work, and Coen puts each performer in a role that’s perfectly calibrated to their strengths. Corey Hawkins brings a jagged intensity to the play’s hero: Macduff. Moses Ingram (“The Queen’s Gambit”), as Lady Macduff, in her lone scene, balances tenderness and wit with aplomb. Richard Short plays the strategically nimble Siward. In a film filled with incredible costume work by Mary Zophres, his body-hugging, androgynous black one-piece is the best. Stephen Root, Coen’s best weapon, is outlandishly out-of-step with the film’s tone, yet delivers a much-needed sense of levity to the bleak play.
But that bleakness, pitched to lower depths in this interaction, summoning an arresting want for bloodshed, is what gives this interaction a delectable touch of gorgeous instability. At one point a child is thrown over a banister into a sea of flames. And there’s a beheading so vicious, it made me want to check my neck. If these scenes read as deranged, they are. They also give this brooding film a sense of violent wit: Denzel especially chews over these words and pulls the morsel of comedic phrases, whose cleverness is lost to many modern viewers, with glee. Other images lodge in the brain: A lyrical shower of autumn leaves in Macbeth’s court, a fairytale Birnham wood marching toward the castle, and Banquo fighting with a torch as a sword are some.
There’s little point in proclaiming this the best “Macbeth,” or even the best cinematic version of the play. Too many interactions make the task impossible. And the very spirit of re-doing “Macbeth” is to add new, different layers to its lineage by approaching the work in vastly different ways. But Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is the kind of visionary art that happens when a group of artists, at the top of their game, assemble to work on a legacy that’s near to their hearts because of the challenge, not in spite of it. Denzel and McDormand are fearless, and “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is an enthralling jolt of verse and just good old-fashioned dread. [A]
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