9/10 The barrage of new work from heavyweight directors that sealed off 2021 like the frantic finale of a firework display is capped by The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s spin on William Shakespeare’s enigmatic tale of insomnia, self-fulfilling prophecy, madness and murder, which expanded on New Year’s Eve like a fine dessert wine uncorking for the end of the year.
“Macbeth” is such a primal story, it touches so gracefully on so many preoccupations that are so universal, not just violence but power, destiny, guilt, the list goes on and on, and it’s got such a high floor as a show, that it becomes a fantastic canvass for whatever troupe is putting it on to strut their stuff. What any team does to make it their own automatically becomes the highlight. Shakespeare is used like that in general, but “Macbeth” is probably the best individual play for it. It’s his shortest play, one of his most famous and certainly steeped in the most superstition, and just about every scene has an absolute banger of a line in it somewhere.
Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, who also produces, in the title roles, takes a gentle touch to the material. There’s not a lot of montage work or big camera movements. It’s mostly an acting showcase, with an emphasis on the show’s monologues, specifically for Washington, and he’s more than equal to the task, of course. It’s a casual masterpiece of a performance. There’s such a palpable comfort to his delivery and fluidity to his emotions that it almost seems improvised, like everything that is Denzel Washington’s Macbeth just tumbles out of him like a waterfall.
Most of the unique look of the film comes from Stefan Dechant’s deceptively tiny production design, which has a distinct German Expressionism feel to it, but cleaner. Dunsinane is a maze of narrow, completely empty halls with impossibly high ceilings and archways that stand in judgment from above. Sets outside around Scotland are at various crossroads and thin places, always on limited patches of set with greenscreen map paintings that are obvious even in the greyscale. The small sound stages are all meant to be clockable as you watch them. It makes the movie feel more like a stageplay, but also gives it a “once upon a time in Scotland” vibe, like the whole place is one big Schwarzwald and we’re just seeing what’s going on in certain clearings.
Though movement is minimal, The Tragedy of Macbeth is also a showcase for Bruno Delbonnel’s harsh chiaroscuro compositions, which lean heavily into silhouette work and characters walking into complete blackness. The contrast is cranked high enough that it almost is a full two-tone work in a lot of places, black and white with nothing in between at all. He takes what could be a minimalist aesthetic straight to its extremes with consistently striking images.
There’s also a heavy focus on the sound design around echoing drops of blood as deafening deathknells straight out of Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Telltale Heart,” fitting this performance’s focus on Macbeth’s guilt and paranoia. The beats also enforce the film’s pace, which is somehow steady and accelerating at the same time.
Probably the biggest departure from real tradition is the three witches, whose roles are all rolled into one for Shakespeare veteran and contortionist Kathryn Hunter. She and Washington are both already reeling in critics’ award nominations and wins for their performances. The sisters are also given a much more active, if silent, role in the story, while Ross (Alex Hassell), a minor courtier, becomes the focus as a kind of narrator.
In a film landscape dominated by nostalgia and audiences who seem to want to know exactly what they’re going to see, it’s kind of funny we don’t see more Shakespeare, because it seems perfect for the moment. Viewers get to be experts on the material – they get to be actual doctors on the material! – with hundreds of years of analysis to peruse, and filmmakers, in theory, get to make something that actually speaks to them and are actively encouraged to get as weird with it as possible.
The Tragedy of Macbeth should be seen in a theater, but it will be available to stream on Apple+ Jan. 14.