Besides Hamlet, I think Macbeth is the most popular Shakespeare adaptations. There have been SO many adapted for the big screen lately that I wasn’t initially interested to see this one. But with Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, I couldn’t resist. The early screening was packed even though it was on a Sunday, I see a lot of young people of color which clearly is a testament to Denzel’s appeal as a movie star.
In case you’re not familiar with the story, Macbeth is a Scottish general who 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. Any old tale can feel new and fresh if it’s developed by a visionary filmmaker. Joel Coen in his debut without his filmmaker brother/partner Ethan tackled the material with a minimalistic approach that really makes you focus on the story and character.
First thing you notice is the visuals, shot in striking black/white with stark set pieces that resemble a stage play. I love that Coen honors the fact that the story originated on stage by stripping the film down as if you’re watching a play on screen. It opens with the scene of the trio of witches telling Macbeth that he will be King. That prophecy immediately takes hold of him, and with the boost from his ambitious wife, it spells trouble for King Duncan.
I’ve seen quite a few Macbeth adaptations, even a modern retelling version like Shakespe-retold with James McAvoy as an ambitious chef. The latest one was the Justin Kurzel version in 2015 with Michael Fassbender which was gorgeous and atmospheric but also tedious. Thankfully I didn’t find this version boring at all, though it’s a slow-burn film that’s more reflective rather than action-driven. In fact, I actually find this film makes the narrative more digestible.
The lack of frills of set design or elaborate costumes etc bring the Bard’s classic tale to life in almost hypnotic way. I was mesmerized by every little detail of what the character is doing and even the normally unapproachable Shakespearean dialog easier to follow. It’s a dialog-heavy film, again inspired by the stage play, but it feels dynamic not dull. The brief action scenes are staged creatively and uses the limited space to great effect.
It’s not a case of style over substance however as the acting is a triumph. Again, Denzel commands the screen like nobody’s business. He has an inherently regal aura about him while the ruthless ambition is subtler, more seething underneath rather than full-on. Frances, in her ninth time working with her husband proves to be another fruitful collaboration. She’s no stranger to playing a powerful woman and there’s a certain icy-ness to her Lady Macbeth mannerism as she wields her influence on her husband. Her guilt-ridden soliloquy is one of the film’s highlights.
The stand out supporting cast are Kathryn Hunter as the three witches (and later as an old man), Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Alex Hassell as Ross, Corey Hawkins as Macduff and Harry Melling as Malcolm. It’s wonderful to see an ethnically diverse cast extending beyond just the lead actor, and the ensemble cast were terrific all around.
I can’t say enough about the stunning visuals, shot by Bruno Delbonnel who has collaborated with the Coens a few times (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). He’s been nominated for Oscar five times and hopefully next year will be his year and he absolutely deserved it. I think the cinematography is one of the best I’ve ever seen, the noir, austere visual aesthetics made more impression to me than The Green Knight which is also stunning. There are so many perfect shots that you can frame from this film. The use of shadows, fog, visual contrast, etc. is just masterful. One of my favorite scenes is when Macbeth was sitting in a room in his home where the floor transforms into water and the ceiling opens up to reveal the sky. It’s such a fantastic surrealist moment.
The sound department is to be commended as well for the phenomenal sound design that really envelopes you. The superb use of sound is crucial here, especially since a lot of what’s going on with Macbeth happens inside his head. The claustrophobic nature of the set combined with that pulsating sound drives the point of the character’s ‘unsoundness of mind.’
Joel Coen made an intriguing choice with shooting the film mostly on sound stages, instead of going with a more realistic approach to the setting. Given Macbeth is plagued by illusions and false prophecy, this dreamlike or should I say nightmarish style is an effective storytelling technique to illustrate his mental misinterpretation of what is real. Hence the title with the word ‘tragedy’ is spot on for a character so preoccupied with his blind faith that his inability to see truth leads to his own downfall. I find Macbeth’s descent into madness emotionally devastating, though obviously his tragic end is brought about by his own doing. In a way, it’s a timeless cautionary tale about greed and unbridled ambition that resonates even four hundred years after it’s written.
I’ll be rooting for it at the Oscars for Best Picture. I think Denzel and Frances could be a shoo-in in the Best Actor and Actress category, and I think Kathryn Hunter also deserves a nod for such an effectively-eerie performance that’s quite hard to shake. The Tragedy of Macbeth exceeds my expectations in every respect and definitely one of the absolute best films of the year. The film is on AppleTV so I highly recommend you to check it out, I know I plan to rewatch it at some point.