Macbeth (Denzel Washington), after defeating the Thane of Cawdor, plots to assassinate Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) with his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) and installs himself as King of Scotland after being prophesied by three witches (Kathryn Hunter). In doing so, he sets off a chain of events that will lead him further into murder and madness …
As anyone who’s studied Leaving Cert’s Scottish play will tell you, there is no shortage of murders or ghosts in the story. Much of his film adaptations have played on this aspect. While some have escalated the violence, like Jed Kurzel’s adaptation with Michael Fassbender, others have like that of Roman Polanski, focused on his bloody murder. Joel Coen’s adaptation stands in stark contrast to these, not only because of his use of black and white, but also the way he composes the clouded mystery of it all.
Some of the more stand-out scenes feature Denzel Washington as the Mad King, yes, but rather he’s the one who fears Kathryn Hunter, who plays the Three Weird Sisters. Hunter’s physical frame twists and his voice croaks to portend a terrible murder, the camera completely transfixed by it all. Her jet-black eyes are mesmerizing and frightening, and when she seems to deliver her twisted prophecies, the whole movie takes on the feel of a ghost story inspired by Ingmar Bergman like “The Seventh Seal”, or even own adaptation of Orson Welles. Each of the actors, from the wonders of a scene like Stephen Root as the porter or Jefferson Mays as the medic, is more than equal to the text. Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth plays the role down, allowing herself only a moment to really linger. Denzel Washington, meanwhile, gives Macbeth an air of almost detached solemnity until the very end when he’s Denzel “Training Day” against Corey Hawkins’ Macduff.
Joel Coen’s direction is crisp and sharp. While some scenes have been excised and condensed, the text is widely respected. Interestingly, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” features a co-editor in Lucian Johnston, who previously cut “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” from Ari Aster and that influence can be seen here. It feels like Joel Coen was looking for a horror editor’s eye here, and it shows. Violence and mystery are drawn like a knife, and transitions from scene to scene are made using the omnipresent fog and smoke that obscures Dunsinane. Likewise, Carter Burwell’s score and sound design add to that otherworldly feeling. The scenography and the scenography are made of geometry, long black corridors and high windows in which the mists and mists are covered.
Yet despite all this exquisite craftsmanship, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” feels less human in other adaptations. It’s more rigid and sturdy, to be sure, but it doesn’t have any ambiguity or vagueness. He sacrifices naturalism for austere staging and shadows for accuracy. Obviously, people’s mileage varies and many will no doubt be enriched by the way Joel Coen’s adaptation features the black and white text. Nonetheless, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a remarkable work, which can comfortably serve as a new benchmark for Shakespeare’s adaptations.