âThe Tragedy of Macbethâ opens with the haunted, supernatural voice of a witch promising a fateful encounter with the doomed main character. Shakespeare himself and writer / director Joel Coen know how to set the mood: it won’t be an earthly tale of historical facts, but a great drama set in motion (and repeatedly stirred up) by the supernatural.
This bizarre sequence made “Macbeth” one of Shakespeare’s most adaptable and frequently revisited works; creators find it hard to resist the urge to dive in and make it weird. This is the case with Coen, who uses black-and-white photography (beautifully taken by five-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel) and a slightly less than real soundstage to give the film an absurd and stripped-down tint.
You can spend your watching “The Tragedy of Macbeth” marveling at Coen’s craft, if you like, but you’ll find it hard to distract your attention from the cast. Each film adaptation of Shakespeare is a chance for movie stars to test their acting skills; not everyone can master the language and many have hesitated. Few, however, have succeeded as completely as Denzel Washington; his Macbeth is the best I have ever seen, a thoughtful but rampant leader who seeks to control the forces around him even as he has trained them.
Among these strengths: his ambitious wife (Frances McDormand). The iconic character is often played as a manipulator or a madman; in McDormand’s more than capable hands, she’s rather cold and angry, invigorating a vital role.
Corey Hawkins, as Macduff, and Brendan Gleeson, as King Duncan, stand out among the supporting roles; both possess gravity and mastery of the screen. The indelible performance, however, is Kathryn Hunter as the three “strange sisters,” who appear from time to time to push Macbeth toward her destiny. Hunter, a seasoned stage artist, creates witches who are at the same time monster, contortionist and diviner; I watched his scenes every day.
âThe Macbeth Tragedyâ is the best kind of modern Shakespeare, keeping the film in its setting and setting while teasing the drama. The language is unchanged (although it is thoughtfully edited – thanks to Coen for its release in under two hours), but the drama is brought to the fore, allowing even viewers with no experience in Shakespearean writing to easily follow the rhythm.
Meanwhile, the hypnotic quality of the shoot complements the rhythm of the tongue, causing the film to flow like a river – into which shocking sights and sounds fall like heavy stones. Watching “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a remarkable and memorable experience.
My rating: 9/10
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” opens on select local screens on December 31. It will begin airing on Apple TV + on January 14.