While the respect is there, William Shakespeare is not the go-to wordsmith I think much about when not connecting his work to what it has influenced. I am, however, a major fan of all the principal players and filmmakers involved with The Tragedy of Macbeth. The notion of Joel Coen (minus his brother, Ethan) putting together a stripped-down adaptation of one of the Bard’s most famous plays was intriguing enough, but casting Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand raised expectations higher. The results are unsurprisingly good but no less fascinating. This is thanks to the effort put into the visual choices and intense focus on the original text, despite new angles on the dynamic of a husband and wife making power moves.
It’s the same story as always. Three witches (ingeniously and creepily portrayed by theater actor Kathryn Hunter) convince a Scottish lord (Washington) that he will become the King of Scotland. With an extra push by his equally power-hungry wife (McDormand), murderous choices are made that lead the two down a path of wanting to seize more power and what it will cost them.
The choice was made to go black & white and minimalistic in design. Additionally, the shoot took place entirely on sound stages in Los Angeles, with sets that give the film a kind of abstract stage quality. The expressionistic results help this latest version of the story stand out. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography brings out a particular clarity positioning the leading players in iconic fashion while fully embracing the shadowy sides of castles walls and other locations. The look and deliberate camera angles call back to the days of Fritz Lang. Yet, the close-ups suggest Ingmar Bergman as a primary influence as well (a second viewing at an IMAX screening only enhanced my perception of these striking choices).
Finding ways to creatively bring out the most from such a stark setup is clearly the challenge that’s been accepted and then turned on its head. Most notably, with the creative innovation of having Hunter portray all three witches, using her body contortions to pull off this concept. Later on, these witches are perched on the rafters above Macbeth to handle the famous “double, double toil and trouble” scene, all while the increasingly mad lord stands in a room that’s been converted into a liquid-filled cauldron.
These sorts of choices would seem absurd if there wasn’t such an air of class running through the feature. Sure, the Coens are known for dealing with straight-faced comedy as much as they are with uneasy tension shared between professionals (or aspiring criminal underlings), but there’s a sense of restraint that plays well with the bold choices continually on display. The choice to largely keep from altering the dialogue further helps keep the film on track. Yet, the film never leans into becoming too self-serious.
As far as these two towering lead performers – they are terrific. With no attempt to ease a viewer into the language, it is up to all of the performers to dig into their roles and have their actions and motivations register through every aspect of what they are bringing to the film. This is where Washington’s strengths truly raise him to the highest tier of performer. His talent has never been in question, but it’s clear how much he’s relishing the time he has as Lord Macbeth. Once in sync with what Coen is going for, there is so much to take in when considering the bravado stemming from the Oscar-winning star.
Not to be outdone, McDormand shines as Lady Macbeth. It’s a calculating role requiring one to rely on head games and a conniving spirit while holding onto a level of screen charisma to make the authority she has register so well. Her scenes with Washington put an equal level of ability on display, with a clear understanding that these two love each other. Their questionable morality only enhances that passion, despite the downfall awaiting them.
With McDormand also serving as producer (she and her husband, Joel, could receive an impressive number of shared career Oscar nominations, were this film to go the distance), one of the interesting choices that makes The Tragedy of Macbeth more personal is aging up the leads. This is a middle-aged couple taking this final chance to seek glory. With an impressive set of younger performers around them, including Corey Hawkins as chief rival Macduff, as well as Harry Melling, Alex Hassell, and Moses Ingram, this take on the story cleverly positions the opposition as intriguing counters to imply plenty about vitality.
Other aspects of the film only further show the ambition put in to arrive with a final feature that falls into its own zone that strikes the balance of feeling in line with cinema of the past as well as something post-modern. As usual, Carter Burwell is on hand to deliver another entirely fitting score that’s evocative yet inviting. Costume design similarly suggests just enough to reference a particular era while standing out enough to draw the viewer closer to these characters.
Every moment of this film allows for something to take in. Even those, such as me, who need a minute to break into the mood necessary to absorb Shakespearean dialogue, can find plenty in either the distinct vision for this production or the immense performance delivered by Washington. I found it a thrill to feel Coen pushing himself and the audience into territory that could seem alien in some regard, yet entirely in line with what he’s delivered in the past. Yes, the film is no less tragic and embraces a sense of chilliness. It’s also far too assured to feel like an opportunity squandered. Instead, the film is alive in its wickedness.