Synopsis: A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power.
Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson
Director: Joel Coen
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: I’ve written several reviews lately where I’ve had to go back and revisit my original reactions to hearing about the movie when it was initially announced – and more often than not find myself gorging on humble pie filled with my sticky words. Basically, I’ve been proven wrong repeatedly and I’m not above admitting it. The latest example is Joel Coen’s film version of William Shakespeare’s bloody The Tragedy of Macbeth, being released by A24 and AppleTV+. More than any other Shakespeare, I feel as if I’ve been exposed to this work in one form or another often and questioned why Coen would use up his time on another telling as well as enlisting big-time Oscar winners Denzel Washington and his wife Frances McDormand to come along with the ride.
I realized when the marketing machine for The Tragedy of Macbeth kicked off how wrong I was because here were two trained Shakespearean actors collaborating with a director that knows his way around a plot heavy with scheming and bloodshed. Like the recent West Side Story and people being shocked that they ever doubted Steven Spielberg directing such a fantastic remake, why did I ever think this trio couldn’t pull it off? Far more than fair and not the least bit foul, Coen’s take on Shakespeare’s savage tragedy is a feast for the eyes and ears. I may have thought I was over this particular play, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is so brilliantly done I can’t deny leaving feeling artistically revived.
It’s entirely possible the plot of the play, said to have been written around 1600, is still unfamiliar to some so let’s have a bit of a review session, shall we?
After succeeding in battle, Macbeth (Washington, Flight) and his friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel, Les Misérables), both generals in the King’s army, are heading back home when both men receive a curious message about their future from a prophesizing stranger (Kathryn Hunter). When they reach their destination, Macbeth conspires with his wife (McDormand, Nomadland) about the meaning of the stranger’s news that he would be King, eventually taking fortune into their own hands and seizing the throne through murderous acts that spiral out of control. The ripple effect from each bloody event creates a new problem to be solved or truth to withhold, driving some to madness and others to flee. Those that stay come face to face with their destiny in ways that were always meant to be if they had just heeded the original messages.
We’ve had a streamlined Macbeth before, as recently as 2015 with Justin Kurzel’s brutal and bloody take starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as one of literature’s most infamous couples. I quite liked that interpretation, because aside from the luxe visuals and performances it showed that the bones of Shakespeare’s story could more than withstand excess meat being cut off the bone. Coen takes his own slices off and the result works even better paired with Stefan Dechant’s (Welcome to Marwen) minimalist production design. Shot entirely inside a studio without much effort to make it look otherwise, the effect is somehow even more chilling for its starkness due to the exposure the sets provide. There’s little place to hide or mask your entrance so you better be ready for confrontation if you decide to go forth.
The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (The Woman in the Window) is gorgeous in its risk-taking, the striking use of black and white achieves the correct effect for a story devoid of anything but “either/or” decisions. Marvel at the simple yet intricate costumes by Mary Zophres (Interstellar), so breathtaking in their construction and clarity. Then there are Washington and McDormand, turning in performances that best even their best, which I didn’t think was even possible. When I think I’ve seen everything Washington has in his reserves, he comes up with something new. McDormand I’ve learned to never underestimate and her attack on this most towering of roles is commendable. The real star however is the brilliant Hunter as all three witches…and then some. How this is accomplished should NOT be spoiled for you. I’ll only say it’s a smashing collaboration of actor and director, with assistance from numerous other departments. Nominate her for an Oscar…it’s justly deserved.
For once, I think this is a movie where it doesn’t matter what size screen you see it on. Don’t gasp, I’ll always want you to see it on the big screen (or the biggest screen in your home) but if you had to watch this on your laptop or phone, I don’t think The Tragedy of Macbeth would lose much in the clarity department. Coen and his team of technical geniuses have made sure the movie is crisp as a new dollar bill, so you’ll be able to get everything out of it as Coen intends no matter how you happen to see it. See it you must, though. It’s one of the very best films of 2021.