THE STORY – After being convinced by three witches, a Scottish Lord sets out to become the King of Scotland
THE CAST – Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Kathryn Hunter, Moses Ingram & Alex Hassell
THE TEAM – Joel Coen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Joel and Ethan Coen have adapted the works of Homer (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and Commack McCarthy (“No Country For Old Men”) for the screen before. Now, for the first time in his career, Joel Coen is on his own without his brother Ethan and is this time adapting William Shakespeare for the big screen (and once it premieres on Apple TV – it will be on the small screen as well) with “The Tragedy Of Macbeth.” A singular vision from one half of the Coen Brothers, Joel’s version of the famous Scottish play is an arthouse film made as accessible as Shakespeare can possible be for a 2021 audience thanks to a striking visual approach, powerhouse star actors in the leading roles, and a streamlined approach to the screenplay, resulting in a thrilling drama that can rival “Game Of Thrones” in terms of political ambition, machinations, fantasy, and murder.
I don’t know many who will need a refresher on the story of Macbeth, but for those who do, here’s the idea: Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is a Scottish general who has won many battles and the loyalty of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). Macbeth is approached by Three Witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter), who tells him that he will be king one day. However, after years of never ascending that high up the political ladder of power, Macbeth needs some convincing, and that’s where his wife, Lady Macbeth (a conniving Frances McDormand), comes into play. With the opportunity before him and potentially his last, Macbeth seizes the moment, committing acts of murder, bringing about his rise as a tyrant and his guilt-ridden and inevitable downfall.
When we talk about actors giving “Shakespearean” performances, we’re often doing it for a reason, and to see two actors of the caliber of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand tear into Shakespeare’s words on the screen, is truly a sight to behold. Often, Coen’s blocking and framing of the actors make it look like the acting is taking place on a stage but shot in a highly cinematic way. Both Washington and McDormand make their extremely complex work look effortless as they dig deep into their characters, finding familiar and unexpected ways to portray characters we’ve seen performed on screen and through other forms of media before. Washington starts more hushed, tired, and internalized early on as the actor’s age suggests a level of fatigue in his ambitious quest for power. Once the murder is committed, and his ascension to the throne is complete, his guilt and paranoia turn to madness, allowing Washington to unleash explosive anger on all of his enemies. McDormand is Washington’s equal, for whenever she shares the screen with him, neither dominates, thus making her the perfect scene partner. And when she is on her own without Washington, particularly the sleepwalking scene towards the end, McDormand also finds deeply emotive ways to display her own guilt and anguish at the atrocities she and her husband have committed. Both Washington and McDormand are backed by an excellent ensemble whose only flaw is they are not seen on screen more. Kathryn Hunter plays the three witches in what is a shapeshifting, overly physical performance. Contouring her double-jointed body like a pretzel and with a voice that sounds like Andy Serkis’ Gollum, she nearly steals the film from Washington and McDormand in what is a truly memorable performance. Corey Hawkins also continues to surprise and showcase his range after showing the world his singing and dancing abilities with “In The Heights” earlier this year; he has now proven he can command the screen with Shakespearan tragedy, for when his Macduff receives horrific news, Hawkins sells the character’s fury, and pain, vowing revenge in a more than satisfying manner. Stephen Root also has one hilarious scene as The Porter, a quirky and animated character who would feel right at home in any number of the Coens’ previous efforts. Moses Ingram has one harrowing scene as Lady Macduff, while a lot of screentime is devoted to the character of Ross, played very well by Alex Hassell. Everyone receives a memorable scene or two to get their moment to shine, but at under two hours in length, there’s only so much Shakespearean dialogue to go around.
While the length of Coen’s “The Tragedy Of Macbeth” can be a blessing and curse, what’s old is new again in his cinematic approach to the material. Drawing inspiration from films of the 1940s and 50s, the film is shot in Academy ratio (4:3) and black and white. The sets were all constructed on Hollywood soundstages (even the exteriors), which also helps to give the film a classic, timeless look. Joel Coen deploys several flashy directorial choices in how he constructs scene transitions and works with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (possibly his best work to date?) to create images that will leave a lasting impression on your mind for days on end. And if that doesn’t do it, the impactful sound of the ominous “knocking” (which can be heard in the film’s teaser trailer) is used effectively and during many moments throughout to create tension, whether it’s matching a drop of water, blood, or the sound of footsteps. Dialogue is also mixed well throughout, as the actors’ voices echo through the halls and corridors, carrying more dramatic weight and filling the theater speaks though as if you were watching a stage version. Carter Burwell’s good but sparingly used music creates a foreboding atmosphere, with bagpipes that seem to be struggling to get the score’s notes out, further accentuating the weariness of Macbeth’s struggle for power.
With a diverse and extraordinarily talented cast, a fast pace, and an out-of-this-world visual presentation, “The Tragedy Of Macbeth” is the most accessible William Shakespeare will be for a modern 2021 audience without changing his words. Coen has kept those brilliant words intact while stripping away and restructuring certain aspects of the play to make them fit into his own unique vision. While there is some connective tissue missing in terms of character motivations, and the language can still be incredibly hard to parse through, the story is still the story, filled with political intrigue, compelling drama, and enough action to fill an episode of “Game Of Thrones.” Even with only one Coen Brother at the helm, the end result is still a royal success.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Striking black-and-white cinematography, powerhouse performances from the entire cast, a thrilling pace and atmospheric sound.
THE BAD – While the streamlined approach to the material helps to keep the pace moving, some of the character motivations are lacking and the short screen time for the supporting cast hurts since they’re so excellent.
THE OSCARS – Best Actor, Best Cinematography & Best Production Design (Nominated)