February 1, 2022
Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is a triumph of visual storytelling. Starring Denzel Washington as the titular antihero, the faithful but fresh adaptation enlivens the timeless tale for new audiences and scholars of the Bard alike.
Eschewing any modernist notion to present Shakespeare’s text through a contemporary filter, Coen sticks to the original play in all its Elizabethan grandeur. But if your last exposure to such phrasing as, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” was in high school, worry not: You don’t need SparkNotes to enjoy The Tragedy of Macbeth. Coen’s adroit cinematography and set design complement each scene, telling the story in tandem with the actors, and it is visually mesmerizing.
When your source material is one of the greatest English stories, written by the greatest English-language playwright, as a filmmaker, you have to do something creative or daring to distinguish your adaptation as uniquely yours. Throughout the years, Beethoven’s sonatas have been performed countless times, but there’s a reason some interpretations remain authoritative.
Coen’s Macbeth is shot in black and white. The minimalist, monochrome palette accentuates the emotions in each scene. At one point, as Macbeth rationalizes murdering King Duncan, he marches down a long hallway, delivering the famous soliloquy, “Is this a dagger which I see before me? The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.” Each footstep is echoed with a loud, thumping beat until he reaches the door at the end of the hall, gripping its dagger-shaped handle, orating, “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell.”
The Tragedy of Macbeth’s visual prowess isn’t merely such small details as door handles but entire sets. Coen’s use of space, erecting towering ceilings above slim, narrow rooms, lends the film a sense of intimacy that almost feels like you’re on a theatrical set.
A penchant for theater was how Coen came to create this film in the first place. It was his wife, Frances McDormand, who for years had yearned to play the part of the cunning, power-lusting Lady Macbeth. Not knowing much about the stage, Coen decided to cast her in his film adaption instead.
At 67 and 64, Washington and McDormand, respectively, are older than your typical Lord and Lady Macbeth. But instead of relying on some Hollywood trickery to pass as a young, burgeoning soldier, Washington leans into his weathered age. Through such lines as, “They hailed him father to a line of kings. Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, and put a barren scepter in my gripe, Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand, No son of mine succeeding,” Washington’s countenance exudes the finality of his lineage.
But even in his veteran age, Washington’s power-addled King Macbeth can still duel with a sword. In a dazzling finale, Macbeth and Macduff clash, striking and parrying in a long and narrow battlement. Ultimately, it is Macbeth’s inability to remove his gaze or grasp from his crown that leads to his downfall. Coen’s poetic depiction of this is one of the best contemporary testaments to the classic art of cinema.
By the time of the film’s release, Frances McDormand had wanted to play Lady Macbeth for over five decades. Her reverence for the role shines through the conviction with which she delivers her performance. She isn’t a bombastic sociopath but a calculating manipulator, supplanting her conscience to placate her thirst for power. “Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it,” she tells her husband, goading him into murdering the king.
Few talents could stand out when cast alongside two of Hollywood’s finest, but Kathryn Hunter achieves precisely this feat in Macbeth. Given the role of all three wicked witches, Hunter lands a brilliantly terrifying performance, contorting her body and speech straight into your memory.
Beautifully paced and shot, Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth is among the finest adaptations of Shakespeare in recent years. It’s an incredibly artsy film, but it doesn’t require an arts degree to understand or appreciate. And in an era when most theatrical releases are just tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury (and CGI), signifying nothing, something as different as a Denzel Washington Macbeth is as refreshing as it can get.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner