The Tragedy of Macbeth review: Shakespeare gets a stark, sumptuous update

·3 min read
Oscar Listicle
Oscar Listicle

A24 Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth.'

All's fair (or foul) in screen adaptations of Shakespeare. When the words are canon for 500 years, where else could they have left to go? The Bard has been turned inside out — recast in the realm of samurais and Lion Kings, Bollywood musicals and American high schools — though he hasn't met a Coen brother, until now. Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth, which opened the New York Film Festival on Friday, isn't one of those radical reworkings on the face of it; his script stays almost entirely faithful to the original text. But he lavishes his version with extraordinary care and atmosphere: a stark, sumptuous retelling helmed by two titanic stars and shot in startling black and white.

As the man who would be king, Denzel Washington is, well, Denzel — a force of nature, his fierce command tinged increasingly with madness. Frances McDormand's Lady Macbeth is all calm surface and calculation, at least at first; if her husband falters in their plan to kill the sitting monarch (a gentle, quizzical Brendan Gleeson) and take his crown, she'll have enough nerve for the both of them. It's easy enough to slit King Duncan's throat and blame the guards, and even better when Duncan's sons (Harry Melling and Matt Helm) run off in a panic, leaving vapor trails of guilt. But the prophesies of the three witches — all played by British theater actress Kathryn Hunt with leering, uncanny glee — foretell more challenges to come, and the machinery of the Macbeths' undoing begins.

Familiar faces dot the screen: In The Heights' Corey Hawkins as the noble, outraged Macduff; Game of Thrones' mountainous Ralph Ineson as a stoic captain; veteran character actor Stephen Root as the sozzled Porter, injecting a few brief moments of levity. Many more, like Alex Hassell as the all-seeing go-between Ross, mostly have U.K. stage work on their resumés. They all speak in their own accents, though that's less disruptive than it could be; like the score and the film stock and the colorblind casting, it's all of a piece with Coen's creation and the consuming mood he sets.

It's impossible not to talk about the hand of his production designer in that, Stefan Dechant (Alice in Wonderland), who sets the idea of Sir William's traditional Scottish moors against a kind of surreal Calvinist dream world of screaming birds and sharp geometries — and of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), who frames his shots like a modern-day Fritz Lang, composed for maximum disorienting impact and scale. The costumes too, by Mary Zophres, are fantastic: wools and grommets and leather stitched meticulously together in a mode maybe best described as Luxe Monastic.

Their clean lines suit the rich minimalism of the production and the muscularity of the prose — though Coen sometimes seems in a rush, strangely, to dispatch his storyline and get back to the business of all that style. His pace is so galloping that torrents of dialogue pass by, sweeping past central deaths and sudden plot turns with hardly a pause for breath. For all its physical beauty and austerity, that hurried, heightened reality makes it hard to forget that what you're watching is less a standalone movie than an exceptionally well-staged play put on screen. Still, there's real resonant power in all that sound and fury: a tragedy stripped back and reborn once again but the essential truth of it undiminished, half a millennium on. Grade: B+

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in theaters on Dec. 25, and streams on AppleTV+ beginning Jan. 14.

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