Few names in modern cinema are more revered than the Coen Brothers. Over the course of 18 films, including Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men and, most recently, Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the brotherly duo have conjured up one transcendent masterstroke after another for almost 35 years now. The Tragedy of Macbeth, a linguistically faithful but stylistically ambitious retelling of Shakespeare’s perennial play, finds Joel Coen writing and directing independently from brother Ethan Coen for the first time in their careers. Fortunately, Joel demonstrates that he has plenty to offer on his own in this dire and nightmarish interpretation on The Scottish Play, stripping the story down to its barest elements while adding layers of visual grandeur at the same time.
In early 1600s Scotland, brothers in arms Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return from battle when they are met by a trio of witches (all three portrayed by Kathryn Hunter) with a prophecy. They proclaim the former will soon be king while the latter will raise a son who will come to be king sometime in the future, an ominous prediction that sets the men on divergent paths. When Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) hears tell of the witches’ omen, she talks her husband into killing the fair King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in his sleep. Assuming the throne after the king’s murder, Macbeth seems to have the world at his fingertips but his obsession with the prediction about Banquo’s offspring begins to consume himself and his wife.
A coven of whispering witches open The Tragedy of Macbeth in eerie voiceover, setting an otherworldly and ominous pall over this adaptation that recalls the hushed unease of 2016’s The Witch. The rugged 17th century setting, period-accurate dialogue, and presence of that film’s star Ralph Ineson in the next scene further cements the connection between the two movies, though the stories obviously diverge from there. Coen adapts directly from Shakespeare’s original prose; those intimately familiar with the play’s text should have fun mouthing the words of their favorite passages along with the actors. Though the occasional line reading can come across as awkward, the cast is uniformly prepared and deeply entrenched in their respective performances.
Stylistically, Coen and his production designer Stefan Dechant draw most notably from the German Expressionism movement and more specifically, the works of Fritz Lang like Metropolis and M. The stark black-and-white cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel makes the contrast between light and shadow greater than that of a color counterpart. In some scenes, this makes separation more evident and in others, the visual lines are blurrier. Fog and sand spill over into one another during the early prophecy scene but by the time Macbeth is crowned king, the angular castle with its high archways and narrow passages make for more sharply defined settings. It’s a clever visual metaphor to articulate how Macbeth’s world becomes more governed by absolutes, no matter how unfounded they are, as the narrative progresses.
Washington has always excelled at playing characters with a chip on their shoulder and he pitches Macbeth’s haughtiness perfectly while also generating sympathy at just the right moments. McDormand is a fine counterpoint, wielding quiet ambition for a greater purpose but tragically succumbing to madness along the way. These two leads, along with fine supporting players like Corey Hawkins and Harry Melling, have turned in plenty of outstanding work on-screen through the years but the real find here is Kathryn Hunter. Playing the part of all three of The Witches, she contorts and confounds in a role that is captivating in its physicality and unforgettable in its solemnity. The Tragedy of Macbeth takes the Bard’s play into more haunting territory than it’s been before, in ways that only great filmmakers can manifest.
Score – 4/5
More new movies to watch this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Hotel Transylvania: Transformania, an animated family comedy starring Andy Samberg and Selena Gomez about a Van Helsing invention that turns monsters into humans and turns humans into monsters.
Coming to theaters is Scream, a slasher sequel starring Melissa Barrera and Mason Gooding which picks up 25 years after the landmark horror entry and follows a new masked killer that terrorizes the quiet town of Woodsboro once again.
Also playing only in theaters is Belle, a sci-fi anime starring Kaho Nakamura and Ryō Narita about a shy high school student who loses herself in the persona of a globally-beloved singer that she adapts within a massive virtual world.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup