White so bright you can’t stare at it without blinking. Suddenly, figures emerge, walking straight toward the camera as if out of a dream. In fact, this dream-like state pervades the entirety of Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth,” his first solo outing as a director without brother Ethan. But he brings every skill he’s honed in their collaborations to “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a stunning tour-de-force that is simultaneously spare and dense.
Denzel Washington plays Macbeth, the Scottish lord who, at the start of the story, is met by three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter, who contorts her body and hisses her lines in a manner both foreboding and mesmerizing), who bestow upon him a series of prophecies that prompt him to begin harboring ambitions of being king. Frances McDormand plays his wife, Lady Macbeth, who jumps on her husband’s hesitancy and badgers him to take what is rightfully is—by murdering King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). For actors with little to no previous Shakespeare experience, Washington and McDormand deliver the poetic dialogue as if they were born to do it. They are riveting whether they are sharing the screen or apart, deftly handling their scheming their way to power and their subsequent descents into insanity. But perhaps Coen’s biggest shift from the source material comes with their casting. In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and the majority of adaptations that followed, Macbeth is a young man thirsty for power. Washington and McDormand are both in their 60s, which changes the context of the story from a young couple fighting to establish their legacy to a couple past their prime struggling to hold on to it. Their worn faces hold some bitterness, leaving it up to our imagination what triumphs and disappointments they have experienced in their lives up to now. The change feels a little odd, particularly since Macbeth’s rivals, including Lord Macduff (Corey Hawkins, who impressively conveys all his character’s grief and rage in a remarkably short space of time) and Duncan’s son Malcolm (Harry Melling) are still young men. But it brings a new perspective to the story that is interesting to play around with.
The most impressive aspect of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” by far, however, is the way it looks and sounds. This is not a sweeping epic shot on location; Coen filmed the entire movie on soundstages, and everything contributes to its contained feel, right down to the aspect ratio. Those who are familiar with the play know it is set in Scotland, but this adaptation feels like it exists outside a set time and place. The costumes and hair are effective in their simplicity without necessarily being period accurate. Same goes for the diversity in the casting, and the fact that no one here is putting on any accents, allowing the actors to inhabit their roles as naturally as possible. Coen brought some of his previous collaborators behind the camera along with him, including Carter Burwell, whose minimal score is haunting, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who previously worked on “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The direction, black-and-white cinematography, and manufactured sets all come together to make Coen’s “Macbeth” feel more like a play than its previous film adaptations, but also uniquely cinematic. The scenes shot from canted angles, the playing with shadows, and the sets, which are sharp and towering but also stripped down as much as possible, evoke the German expressionism movement that peaked in film in the 1920s with such movies as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu.” While much of the story is set within the castle walls, even the scenes set in nature are given a unique quality thanks to being filmed indoors, in particular in the staggering march of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, where soldiers crowd together holding tree branches over their heads, while the real forest on either side of them encroaches on their path. It feels like a throwback to the way movies were filmed in the Hollywood of yesteryear, where the restrictions of only being able to work on a sound stage forced filmmakers to get creative and gave birth to a series of visually distinct film that strived for artistry as opposed to reality. Coen isn’t restricted here though—far from it. His “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stems from a mind that knows its craft, and a heart that has a vision. And while some audience’s tolerance or affinity for Shakespeare may determine their enjoyment of this film, there’s little doubt that it will go down as one of the most memorable Shakespeare film adaptations ever made.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is now playing in theaters and will be streaming on Apple TV+ beginning January 14. Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated R.