The Tragedy of Macbeth was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. It will debut in limited theaters on Dec. 25 and on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.
There have been Macbeth movies for nearly as long as there has been cinema. There are few places left to go with faithful big-screen adaptations, and ever fewer untapped re-imaginings of the 500-year-old text; there’s a fantastic Bollywood version, there’s one with Melbourne gangsters, and there even exists a low-budget indie set in a corporate office headed by CEO Duncan King (though that one is hard to find). However, director Joel Coen — one half of the Coen brothers — seems fully aware of this history, and so he looks backward, rather than forward, with The Tragedy of Macbeth, a hyper-stylized piece that straightforwardly adapts the play and evokes numerous eras of Shakespeare on-screen (primarily, Orson Welles) while also paying homage to the medium of the stage.
In Coen’s film, Denzel Washington is Macbeth, Frances McDormand is Lady Macbeth, fair is still foul, and foul is still very much fair — but up is also down, and vice versa. The opening frame snaps from black to blinding white with the sound of a camera shutter, which, alongside the old-school 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, promises both a capital “f” Film and a disorienting experience. Clouds and circling crows slowly fade into frame, though what we’re actually looking at when the movie begins — or rather, from what point of view — takes a moment to figure out, as is the case throughout the rest of the film.
Little in the text is new — the witches’ prophecy still nudges Macbeth and Lady Macbeth toward the pursuit of power — but the presentation is always surprising. The atmosphere is foggy and filthy. In open fields, this means you can never quite tell how close a friend or foe might be. In the ornately designed interiors, it means light becomes gorgeously textured.
What stands out first and foremost about The Tragedy of Macbeth is its visual architecture. The theatrical sets resemble silhouettes of something baroque; they are humongous, but their details have been stripped away, leaving only arches and windows, and illusions of grandeur in stark, high-contrast black and white. The light wraps around each wall and pillar, and alternately hides and illuminates the characters and their ambitions as they stride through pools of light, moving from background to foreground, as if sauntering downstage to greet the audience. Many film actors have played Macbeth, but few, other than perhaps Toshiro Mifune, have felt like true movie stars while doing so, the way Washington does when he emerges from behind a haze. His presence almost makes it part like a velvet curtain.
However, while Macbeth’s arrival is alluring, it’s soon offset by the contorted physical presence of Kathryn Hunter as the play’s three witches (or in this case, one witch from whom the others seem to emerge). It’s hard not to be unsettled by the way these “weird women” first materialize — or by Hunter’s animalistic movements, or the way her voice booms and echoes. For every picturesque moment, there’s something discomforting in store; for every thoughtfully composed close-up reminiscent of silent cinema, a mere droplet or a footstep is turned into a deafening interruption. The story may be familiar, but the film never lets us feel at ease, as it begins its descent into the strange and phantasmagorical, with frequent homages to shots and dreamlike details from Roman Polanski’s Macbeth.
After Macbeth’s ally Banquo (Bertie Carvel) questions if they really saw the three women, or if they had “eaten on the insane root,” the film’s striking expressionism — in the vein of German masters like Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang — begins to reveal itself. Coen, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and production designer Stefan Dechant conspire to create a visual echo of Banquo’s line by turning an unassuming tent into a projection screen, upon which the shadows of roots and branches move in subtle, hallucinatory fashion behind Macbeth. Physical space is rarely what it seems. Each exterior setting is enveloped by a mysterious practical backdrop that plays with perspective, so that its boundaries can’t be easily determined. During transitions, lights occasionally fade in and out as they would on stage, but in several cases, movement from one scene to the next feels both continuous and impossible, as if instead of cutting away, the camera had simply turned upside down to capture action unfolding on the ceiling. The film’s frequently unbroken appearance evokes Hungarian director Béla Tarr — whose own version of Macbeth was presented in two lengthy takes — but it also echoes the feeling of watching a story unfold on stage, where time and space all flow through a single location.
For every picturesque moment, there’s something discomforting in store.
Of course, none of this would matter if the performances didn’t follow suit and feel as winding and mysterious. The cast is fantastic all around. Corey Hawkins is a valiant Macduff. Brendan Gleeson makes for a kindly King Duncan. Harry Melling surprises as Malcolm, a character who undergoes an operatic face-turn akin to pro wrestling. Alex Hassell’s sly Ross is especially noteworthy, as is his serpentine attire; he’s at the center of one of the film’s minor story changes (alongside Hunter, who doubles as the Old Man) which gives the film a particularly fatalistic bent. However, McDormand and Washington’s poetic approach to the words is ultimately what makes the movie shine.
McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is sharp and pointed. Her every word is measured. We can feel her resolve in the way she articulates each syllable, and while no actor in the film ever speaks plainly, McDormand’s delivery is especially geared towards punctuating Shakespeare’s iambic verse. When the film begins, Washington’s dialogue also has a musical quality, but of a different sort. His Macbeth rambles, though never without structure or intention; his words are delivered with his signature smoothness, and they wind and swim as he charges through each line. However, the more Macbeth is drawn into his wife’s madness, the more he begins to sound like her, and the more Washington makes each line and each enunciation explode.
If it has one fatal flaw, it’s that its mere 105-minute runtime makes Lady Macbeth’s role feel somewhat truncated, even though every one of her lines appears to be intact. This is Washington’s movie through and through, and in moments when it opts to press pause on the Bard’s words, this is usually so Macbeth can either engage in swordplay, or quietly consider those words. The more the film goes on, the less it affords McDormand the opportunity to play between the lines, or to create thoughtful emotional transitions during her character’s macabre journey.
Even still, a handful of initial, silent glances between the leading duo — during some of the more charged and rapid scenes — go a long way towards distinguishing their versions of the characters from what came before them. Theirs is a plan that, even though it follows the same trajectory as most other iterations, feels doomed and disconnected from the start. The words both actors speak to each other may follow Shakespeare’s metered rhythm, but the looks they exchange — and the way editors Reginald Jaynes and Lucian Johnston whip back and forth between those looks — feel disharmonious. In Coen’s version of the story, at no point does ambition ever feel intoxicating; instead, the conspiracy is soured from the start, and it makes the dark cloud of Macbeth’s fate loom more closely. The Ross-related story changes certainly help frame this idea in a logistical sense, but there is a bleakness to this Macbeth, and an immediate sense that his prophecy is self-fulfilling, an idea made all the more overt by a design choice surrounding a very specific scar, and the way it eventually comes into play.
Regardless of these minor departures, The Tragedy of Macbeth succeeds because of how it captures the familiar. It reassembles aesthetics from bygone cinematic eras, using simple, practical visual tricks, and stitches them together in complex patterns. It captures age-old story beats with thrilling panache, and its lead actors deliver well-known lines with spellbinding passion, answering the question of how you restage Macbeth for the umpteenth time, in 2021, with a resounding counter: you do it the way it’s been done before, and you do it better.