“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…”
It’s been 15 years ago since I was first introduced to William Shakespeare’s, Macbeth. A junior in high school, I still remember sitting in the dimly lit portable classroom reading the creepy banquet scene where—oh, you know what happens. No scene that I had read at that youthful age had been burned into my head as much as Macbeth roaring in terror—frightening his guests. “This play is amazing,” I thought. And so, a fan was born. I’ve since read the play numerous times and sat to watch film versions of the tragedy ranging from Roman Polanski’s adaptation to Justin Kurzel’s most recent take—even Akira Kurosawa’s samurai retelling of Macbeth, Throne of Blood. But you tell me Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are playing Lord and Lady Macbeth from the visionary mind of Joel Coen? Count me in!
Like any Shakespearean play, it’s not for the faint of heart. The dialogue is like trying to listen to another language. But if you’re a fan, or get the gist of the Shakespearean language, I strongly urge you to watch The Tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth is, by all accounts, what I deem a Shakespearean horror, and Coen leans into that tone from the very beginning. As I believe we’re all more or less familiar with the construct of the play, Macbeth is a Scottish Lord having done everything right by his King. In the shadow of victories against strong Irish and Norwegian armies, Macbeth and his friend Banquo stumble upon three witches that predict that Macbeth will be the new Thane of Cawdor, and soon thereafter, he shall be King. The predictions bewitch the ears of Macbeth, and he soon writes to his wife once King Duncan surprisingly bestows upon him the title: Thane of Cawdor—just as the witches predicted. Lady Macbeth, however, is more power hungry than her husband, and feeds into his need to take over the crown. But as the Macbeths plant their seeds for a coup, their tangled web of lies begin to overtake them.
The roles of Lord and Lady Macbeth have always been played by a young couple thirsting for power. Washington and McDormand, though youth is behind them in years, give a rather interesting take on this play. An aging couple, having given everything to the King, are looking for more as the hand of mortality grows closer to them. As McDormand remarkably put it in an interview, this is their “last chance for glory,” which makes the engineering of their quick plan that more understandable. What a creative way to reinvent this sinister duo.
Washington and McDormand, both having experience with Shakespearean works before, don’t need anything to be said about their acting talents and, by this point, could phone in every single one of their performances from here on out, and still be recognized as some of the best actors of their generation. But like Washington and McDormand’s performances, they leave everything on the table. Often times, as Macbeth begins to turn into a madman, the hysteria overtakes him, and he is left in secluded rooms by himself. Washington acts the hell out of these scenes. He envelopes Macbeth and the lust for power that quickly overtakes him. This is the best acting we’ve seen from Washington since Fences. But while this is Macbeth’s story, I can’t help but think that McDormand steals his thunder—like Lady Macbeth can often do.
McDormand’s piercing eyes will continue to haunt you long after the film is done. As she walks about the castle corridors, illuminated in such harsh lights, Lady Macbeth’s troubling demeanor draws you into every scene. Even when she’s in the presence of others, your eyes only focus on her. Because both of our main characters are so ripe with evil and hunger for power, it takes a skilled actress to stand toe to toe with her male counterpart. At times Lady Macbeth must even outact her husband. I mean, she is the one that devises the plan that gets this “usurper ball” rolling in such quick fashion. McDormand has shown in these past few years that her best acting continues to be ahead of her. Here, she is nothing short of perfection.
The Tragedy of Macbeth embraces the monochrome look, which I believe is a beautiful artistic choice, and makes one feel the bleakness of Macbeth’s despair throughout the play and his—and soon wife’s—waning grasp on reality. Director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel achieves a masterful look with the cinematography. Coen, in his past directorial films alongside his brother, Ethan Coen, used genius cinematographer, Roger Deakins. I don’t doubt that Deakins could have painted another worldly look for Coen’s vision, but Delbonnel, has established himself as a brilliant cinematographer with his work here. Had it not been for the overbearing lights and shadows, being thrust constantly from light into darkness, one would not be able to feel looming dread and inner turmoil that wrestles within these characters.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, with its overbearing darkness, doesn’t hold anything back in transporting you to this dreary, sinister, place. It’s unlike anything that Coen has ever done, and yet, it’s exactly something he’d do. There are elements of Coen laced within the scenes of the film, but it feels extremely unique. In fact, and yes I’ll say it, this is the best work Coen has released since No Country for Old Men. The Tragedy of Macbeth is extraordinary. I won’t get my hopes up as to the similar content we’ll have like this from Coen as a solo director, or along with his brother. I would love for Coen to continue to branch into more deeper and dramatic works similar to this, because they’re fascinating. But if his heart lays with the dark, dark comedies, I won’t mind that either.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Directed by: Joel Coen
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, and Brendan Gleeson