Joel Coen’s triumphant film of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” which just opened the New York Film Festival on its way to Apple TV+, is not the stodgy Shakespeare of a lit-class lecture. The Coen take on a Scottish lord and lady murdering their way to the top strikes like a lightning bolt.
How could it not with this cast? A virtuoso Denzel Washington, at his magnificent best, looms like a colossus as Macbeth and Frances McDormand, fresh from her third best actress Oscar, brings lethal fire and ice to the role of his Machiavellian wife.
The Bard’s tale of festering ambition has been tackled by filmmakers as diverse as Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa.
With Washington, 66, and McDormand, 64, in these roles, that sweet bird of youth has flown. Unexpectedly and unforgettably, the aging of this childless couple becomes the movie’s pressing reason for being. Long passed over for a chance at the crown, the Macbeths are having their now-or-never moment. You won’t be able to take your eyes off them.
Coen, working for the first time with Shakespeare and without his brother, Ethan Coen—acclaimed for “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men”— pares down the Bard’s play to two hours. Shot by camera wiz Bruno Delbonnel in black-and-white on sound stages swirling with fog, the film makes an unimpeachable case for cinematography as an art form.
Coen cleverly directs his “Macbeth” like a crime thriller with horror show elements. Take the three witches, all played by Kathryn Hunter, in a brilliant, body-contorted tour de force that demands awards attention, who tell Macbeth he’s in for great things if he shows the backbone.
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And there’s no skimping on the poetry as the Macbeths hurtle to their doom. For their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple,” the Coens took the title from novelist Dashiell Hammett who defined it as the addled, fearful mindset of people after prolonged immersion in violent situations.
That’s Macbeth, all right, as we meet him—hair and beard flecked with gray— after emerging from war at the service of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), who gives him the lesser title of Thane of Cawdor while reserving succession rights to his son, Malcolm (Harry Melling).
The king must die and that’s just for starters as the Macbeths plot their takeover and Washington and McDormand, who breathe intimate new life into Shakespeare’s classic verse, provide a dazzling demonstration of acting at its finest.
Washington, a commanding lion in winter, immerses himself in Macbeth’s fall from grace, a necessity in any tragedy. And McDormand expertly navigates Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness, most chilling in her realization that nothing can wash away the blood she has spilled.
All the actors shine, with special praise to Corey Hawkins as Macduff, the lord whose betrayal of Macbeth leads to the shocking execution of his wife (Moses Ingram) and children. For comic relief—Shakespeare knew we needed it and boy, do we ever—there’s Stephen Root as a drunken porter hamming it to the delicious hilt.
In a film of dazzling design—there are enough swooping birds of portent to make Hitchcock green with envy—it’s Coen’s depiction of what ambition does to corrupt humanity that gives the film a psychological punch that is, tragically, as timely as it is timeless.
Macbeth has been performed for centuries and will again. Daniel (007) Craig will star in a Broadway production next year. But the Coen version, led by two acting titans, raises the bar by turning a literary warhorse into an urgent cry from the heart that astounds on every level.