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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ bloody, bold and resolute

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Every so often, a movie will come around that is a perfect encapsulation of several of my interests. These films are relatively rare, but when they do turn up, I can’t help but be thrilled. Of course, there’s always the chance that I will be disappointed.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” was one such rarity. And happily, I was far from disappointed.

The film – directed by Joel Coen from his own adaptation of the William Shakespeare play and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand – is a wonderful collection of things that I love. I love the works of Shakespeare. I love the films of the Coen brothers (and yes, it’s just Joel this time, but still). I love the talents of both Washington and McDormand. And I love the idea that there’s still room in the current marketplace for this type of movie – a stylized black-and-white adaptation of a classic starring capital-M capital-S Movie Stars.

After a limited theatrical release, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” made its way to Apple TV+, where it lays in wait to pounce upon you with one of the starkest, strangest and saddest new films you’re likely to encounter. Possessed of a stunning throwback aesthetic and driven by phenomenal performances, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen in ages.

I’m not going to sit here and synopsize all of “Macbeth.” Even if you’ve never read it, you’ve almost certainly seen a riff on it. A soldier is given a mystical prophecy that leads him to pursue the crown of Scotland, all with the aid of his ambitious wife. He works his way up the hierarchy by whatever means necessary, even as he and his wife descend into madness. There are swordfights and ghosts and witches, with plenty of palace intrigue thrown into the mix.

Again – you know the deal.

There’s a lot to recommend “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” We’ll start with Joel Coen, who undertakes his first-ever film project without his brother Ethan by his side. His adaptation is strong, taking a few narrative liberties but hewing very closely to the exquisite source material. Finding ways to present Shakespearean dialogue to the modern ear is tricky, but he handles it deftly.

Meanwhile, the aesthetic is outstanding. Tonally, the story lends itself to black-and-white, but Coen takes things a few steps beyond mere lack of color. The outdoor scenes are deliberately stylized, feeling almost as if they are taking place on a stage; that delineation allows room for a dreamlike quality that Coen wields with impunity. Meanwhile, the indoor moments are presented in these yawning, cavernous rooms, often with the actors placed at a distance, swallowed up by their surroundings. Coen intercuts this wide emptiness with a surfeit of close-ups; we move from seeing the characters dwarfed by their environment to tight shots where their faces and forms offer up their own spatial domination.

My initial instinct was to make a Bergman comparison – there’s something very “Seventh Seal” about it all, particularly the exterior scenes – although that’s not quite it. Still, the starkness of it all really throws the bleakness inherent to the narrative into sharp relief.

And then we’ve got the cast.

Regular readers of my work know that I ride hard for Denzel Washington. And I’m a longtime admirer of Frances McDormand as well. Watching these two masters of the craft share the screen in a version of one of the all-time-great stage plays, well … that was pretty awesome. Sure, the two are older than those we usually see playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but as a choice, I dig it – there’s a lived-in wear to these two characters that draws focus to the notions of power and legacy that are thematically central. Denzel’s quiet dignity is weaponized here, allowing him to give a more internalized performance without sacrificing gravitas. McDormand glides along atop the narrative, allowing the words to do the work and imbuing her own descent with a glittering brittleness. And when their energies combine … hoo boy.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the supporting cast is absolutely stacked as well. We’ve got Brendan Gleeson as the ill-fated King Duncan, for instance, with a marvelous turn by Harry Melling as his son and presumptive heir Malcolm. Corey Hawkins comes in blazing hot as Macbeth’s rival Macduff and Bertie Carvel is a sharp, restrained Banquo. Stephen Root crushes as the porter at the gate, one of the best single-scene roles in all of Shakespeare. Alex Hassell might be the most compelling Ross I’ve ever seen. And in the absolute highlight of all non-lead performances, Kathryn Hunter embodies the witches in all their unsettling terror (with the help of some outstanding choices by Coen).

Speaking of outstanding choices – Coen’s decision to not force some sort of generic British accent on his cast and instead allowing everyone to speak in their own voice is inspired. Whatever little bit of verisimilitude is lost is more than made up for by the comfort and consistency of the performers; definitely a worthwhile sacrifice.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” isn’t the sort of film that was ever going to be hugely commercially successful, even despite the A-list talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. Honestly, that truth might be the best thing about it – this is a movie whose artistic and creative aims came first. A movie whose likes we don’t see as often as we once did. Challenging and compelling, it is one of the best Shakespearean adaptations we’ve seen in ages.

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Macbeth, Act I, scene iii

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 14:36

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