Latest Issue

The Tragedy of Macbeth: Joel & Denzel Take on the Bard

Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is famously plagued by a curse — a frightening series of mishaps, injuries, and deaths going all the way back to the play’s first staging in 1610.

We don’t have space to go into all that here (just google “curse of Macbeth”), but perhaps this is one reason why it’s proven perilously difficult to make a truly great movie from the play.

Until now.

Orson Welles’ 1948 version and Akira Kurosawa’s renowned “Throne of Blood” have many admirers. But the dazzling new rendition from writer-director Joel Coen — starring Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand — may well be the best one yet. It knocked me silly — and I’m not even a fan of this particular play.

Working without brother Ethan — his usual cinematic partner — Coen has crafted a tale that is swift, sleek, and easy to follow, despite its adherence to the author’s complex sentences and diction. It is also beautifully acted, even down to the smallest role. And, best of all, the movie is an absolute feast for the eyes.

Shot in radiant, crystal-clear black-and-white, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was filmed entirely on sound stages, with ingenious production design that is at once stark and spare, yet also intensely expressionistic. It looks for all the world like a throwback to such classics as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931), and the gothic thriller “Night of the Hunter” (1955).

While the dialog and plot have been carefully trimmed to keep this 150-minute play well under two hours, very little is left out — not even the comical and apparently extraneous porter scene. Likewise impressive is the authority and precision with which the actors deliver some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. You can tell many of these performers have a stage background — particularly the amazing Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three witches as well as the old man. (I noted with some gratification that the New York Film Critics named her Best Supporting Actress for these roles.)

Both Washington and McDormand do a fine job fleshing out the tricky relationship between the title couple — and they’re even better with the subsequent changes Macbeth and wife undergo as they descend into very different types of derangement.

Also notable: Ralph Ineson as the injured captain; Harry Melling (of “Queen’s Gambit”) as Malcolm; and Alex Hassel as Ross, a role Coen has brilliantly tweaked, especially at the end.

When properly handled, “Macbeth” is a chilling portrait of weakness and manipulation, a cunning reflection on fate and free will, and a sober warning about guilt and regret. Coen captures all this in a mere 105 minutes, layering in plenty of other thematic material as well.

As an instance, the opening shot appears to be filmed from below and then suddenly turns out to be looking down instead — an arresting intro to the play’s famed motif of reversal (“fair is foul, and foul is fair”). Yet virtually every frame is composed in this clever and meticulous fashion, making it the kind of film you will likely want to watch more than once.

It is currently streaming on Apple TV.
**** (out of four)
Rated R