Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth Is a Stunning, Stark Shakespeare Adaptation
Decide to Open Macbeth’s Tragedy in theaters on Christmas Day—like releasing a murder of anxious, captive crows into the sky—has to be one of the most perverse marketing strategies of recent years. It’s also brilliant and perfect, if not from a moneymaking perspective, then definitely from an artistic one. Audiences will be able to watch this movie on Apple TV+ a few weeks after its theatrical release; if that’s the only way for you to see it, then by all means do so. The theater experience is an unforgettable, exhilarating way to enjoy this film. This movie is black magic. It can feel a bit dangerous to give your will over to this. However, it is great.
Anyone who wonders why Joel Coen would care to adapt one of Shakespeare’s best known but also bleakest plays probably hasn’t seen many Coen brothers movies. On the surface, the material’s jaundiced view of human nature seems perfect for him. And yet the play’s sense of what motivates people to do terrible things isn’t as simplistic as all that, and Coen—who wrote this treatment for the screen—knows it. Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington, who play the heroic Scottish general and their wife, whose hopes of being royalty make them murderous, gives the story a new light. When these characters are played by actors who are past middle age—almost past the point where they could derive much enjoyment from power, let alone riches—their desperation becomes the point. It is their last chance. They don’t want to die as also-rans, content to wear a halo of coulda-been-a-contender nobility. Horrible, fascinating, scarily human, they’re like a senior-fare Bonnie and Clyde, grabbing at whatever it takes to have their blaze of glory.
The movie opens with swirling crows in an alabaster-gray sky—the picture’s elegant black-and-white cinematography is by Bruno Delbonnel, and it has the unearthly beauty of ancient bones bleached by time. Denzel’s Macbeth and his right-hand-man Banquo (Bertie Carvel) stride through a sandy, lunar-looking landscape, discussing a recent victorious battle, when they stumble upon a vision, a creature to whom we’ve already been introduced. The story’s three witches are played here by one captivating performer, Kathryn Hunter, as a twisted, double-jointed gnome who can grip a sailor’s severed thumb—or what have you—between her prehensile toes. She speaks in a croaking whisper, a voice that seems to have been rubbed raw by centuries’ worth of sand pouring through an hourglass. The film’s first appearance of her in its early stages paradoxically stops the momentum and puts it into full gear. She’s a one-person point of no return.
Coen shows us and Macbeth her in a three-fold mirage. Her prophesy—that Macbeth will become king—is one he gradually takes to heart, writing of it in a letter he sends home to his wife, McDormand’s Lady Macbeth. It is a simple corridor with only a few candlesticks. She takes it in stride as she moves through it, the one that gives her the spark she uses to light the missive. Her future is so bright it’s already on fire.
Duncan, the doomed king, is played by Brendan Gleeson, with squinty gravitas; Corey Hawkins is his loyal thane Macduff, the trustworthy soul who plays a pivotal role in the finale—but before that, he has a fine scene in which he captures the prickly beginnings of grief. Enjoy the pleasures Macbeth’s Tragedy are chilly ones: There’s a truly horrifying scene alluding to, if not overtly showing, the murder of Macduff’s children. McDormand makes a sturdy, intriguing Lady Macbeth: With her coiled coif and upright posture, she has the look of one of those women who retires to Santa Fe to weave wall hangings, and this is part of what makes her motives so ghastly—at an age when most aspiring Scottish queens would be winding down, she’s just revving up. Washington is an amazing Macbeth. He’s a dithery, stammering Macbeth at times and, at other moments, unnervingly calm. Just as he’s reached role-model grandpa age, he’s a man on the wrong track, though his energy is formidable: he strides through the corridors of his castle with the bullish physicality of a high-school athlete, the panels of his regal leather tunic flaring around his legs like the gills of a fighting fish.
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The costumes here—by Mary Zophres—are so extraordinary they could be the foundation of a new product line. The tiny points of embroidery at the neck of Lady Macbeth’s linen sheath, the soft leather boots worn by the men, formed and shaped from just a few pieces of leather: Macbethwear, anyone? But then, the whole movie has the weighty feel of a mantle that settles heavily about the shoulders—at the finish, you may not be sure what you just saw, but you know you sure as hell saw Something. Actors often want to be on stage. Macbeth,It is not a play that I would choose to be my favorite. Perhaps it’s too stark, too arrowlike in its single-mindedness, to be a favorite. It is a beautiful thing, though. Macbeth’s TragedyIt has become a favourite Shakespearean movie adaptation for people who rate such things. As a spectator, it felt like I was part of the crowd watching the play, as I watched from the pit. I was unable to stop flinching, and at one point my throat became clogged with a strangled cry. I was shocked that there wasn’t any mud or straw on my bottom at the end.