(The Tragedy of Macbeth is out now on Apple TV+. It will also have a limited theatrical run starting on February 25th.)
After parting directorial ways with his brother, Joel Coen teams up with William Shakespeare to adapt one of the most iconic plays in the English language.
In his hands, Macbeth turns into a visual feast of jagged edges and searing brights that highlight the nefarious schemes. It’s also a powerful showcase for both Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, both delivering staggering performances in the leading roles.
There’s a natural hesitation to any new takes on The Bard’s material. Not because any of it is sacred or unfilmable, but simply because so many already exist. Macbeth is a showy part, perfect for actors looking to give a calling card performance. But also a prime opportunity for failure, should one go in too gallantly.
Luckily, neither is the case here. Until now, Macbeth has rarely sung as it does now. Others have hit the same high notes, but Coen’s tune is in a completely different genre. For the first time, Shakespeare’s tragedy feels like it has the natural rhythm it always harbored. This is a neo-noir from a time before noir had a name. It’s a story of self-made losers striking at glory, but who, through hubris and self-doubt, are unable to hold on to it.
Even as the terrific cast soliloquies in iambic pentameter, Macbeth sounds like a Joel Coen story. The writer and director of films like Miller’s Crossing and Fargo find the natural humor in the pitch-black bloodshedding.
Washington, a classically trained actor rarely utilized to this extent, leans heavily on both the farcical and his superstar image. His Macbeth is a powerful, storming presence, who commands light itself. So Washington imbues him with a gnawing doubt eating him from within. His strut turns to a skulk: his pomposity to simpering and back again. It is a masterful performance and a surprising companion piece to Washington’s Alonzo Harris from Training Day.
McDormand is equally impressive. Lady Macbeth is an often mistreated part, forgotten by filmmakers in favor of the flashiness of her counterpart. Not here. In McDormand’s hands, she’s cool, calculated, and strangely warm to those she cherishes. Namely, herself and her man. As the walls close in, Coen’s adaptation says much more by what it leaves out than in.
Macbeth comes with a supporting cast of impeccable theater veterans. Most notably Kathryn Hunter, playing all three Witches. It is a staggering role of incredible physicality. One of the very best put on screen. Aided by Bruno Delbonnel’s dreamlike cinematography, these sequences are nightmarish and beautiful.
When combined with immaculate set design, invoking the silent films of German impressionism, Macbeth feels removed from reality. A dense fog surrounds all castles and keeps. Plots hatch in pure darkness; light feels violent and hard. There is no romanticism here, no grandiosity so often associated with this era. Everyone runs from the inevitable into an Escherian nightmare that always leads back to their deeds.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is the perfect marriage of material and director, cast to perfection.