Moody, minimalist, and masterfully performed, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth shows that the elder of the Coen brothers is still a dynamite director on his own. Led by a towering lead performance from Denzel Washington, fans of William Shakespeare will have plenty to enjoy.
King Duncan of Scotland (Brendan Gleeson) hears word from a wounded sergeant that Macbeth (Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) have won a great battle. Three witches (Kathryn Hunter) approach Macbeth and hail him with an unearned title and proclaim that he shall be king and Banquo shall father kings.
Returning from battle and being given his title, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) encourages Macbeth to kill King Duncan and assume the throne. Macbeth and his wife are successful as the King’s son Malcolm (Harry Melling) and cousin Macduff (Corey Hawkins) flee the country in fear for their lives. Macbeth assumes the throne.
An increasingly tyrannical Macbeth raves and rules while using murder to tie up continual loose ends. Lady Macbeth similarly wavers with her sanity, haunted by her and Macbeth’s actions. The witches again appear to Macbeth with further prophecies, which in turn lead to further death.
With forces moving against him and the words of the witches hanging in his ear, Macbeth mobilizes with insane resolve. In a castle filled with madness, the story can only end in tragedy.
How can a good man turn to madness? For Macbeth, it only takes the words of a witch and the potential for power. How much does ambition stifle a person’s goodness? Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are nothing but respected prior to the regicide. Were they predisposed to madness or was the madness brought about by the levels at which they stooped?
The desire for power and the inherent invincibility that comes with that power is paramount to the story. As soon as Macbeth is given the throne, he and his wife scramble and plan and scheme to maintain the power they just received. They don’t even have time to enjoy the power. Both are immediately haunted by the methods by which they took the power. The more grisly the steps they take, the more they are driven mad by it.
Coen and production designer Stefan Dechant scale down the setting to as sparse as possible. While Kenneth Branagh’s 1995 adaptation of Hamlet is bathed in ornate opulence and detail, this version of Macbeth utilizes empty space as a weapon. Throne rooms are caverns. Empty vistas spread to the horizon. Rooms have a single point of interest and are a vacuum besides.
The empty space allows the actors the free reign to explore their characters, but it also minimizes the distractions. This story is all about the drama and power struggle of the characters and anything that would detract from that is smartly eliminated. The architecture that does exist is harsh and sharp, mirroring the character’s motivations and potential for cruelty.
On the surface, you would think Washington would be ill-suited to slip into the shoes of the general. It takes less than two scenes for that belief to disappear. Shakespeare’s words roll off Washington’s tongue like it is the language he always speaks. While many performers struggle with Shakespeare’s metaphor-heavy verse, Washington delivers every line with sly confidence and a world-weary pattern. He is able to deliver heavy monologues with grace but conveys a brash veneer of invincibility. A masterful performance.
McDormand also seems odd for the role of Lady Macbeth, but her staccato delivery and veiled nature lend beautifully to the characterization. Her conniving, politically savvy start the narrative is on point, but her descent into madness allows her to really shine. My only complaint is that she is not in the film enough.
Melling and Gleeson are limited in screentime but shine when they are given the opportunity. Hawkins has been a film star on the rise, and the role of Macduff should only enhance that. He plays a proud but righteous man with bravado and steady charm. Alex Hassell plays the scheming Ross and makes an indelible impression as well. Coen regular Stephen Root pops up for a briefly memorable scene as the King’s porter.
Hunter, a veteran of Shakespeare on the stage, nearly walks away with the film. Her opening scene as the trio of witches is a stunner of physicality and personality. Her voice evokes Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist while utilizing the body control of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist. She only has one other scene halfway through the film, again appearing to Macbeth. She again steals the show with her foreboding proclamations.
Coen, Washington, and McDormand might not seem the right fit on paper, but the trio’s styles and abilities perfectly suit Shakespeare’s words. Atmospheric and memorable, The Tragedy of Macbeth might be a slimmed-down version of one of the bard’s most famous works, but it doesn’t make it any less effective.