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My high school senior year English teacher, Mr. Kilinski would be proud that I remembered every single stanza and line from Macbeth he made his students memorize. As Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and others worked through the Bard’s words as adapted by director Joel Coen, I felt myself lip-syncing under my mask. I covered the greatest hits, and lines I didn’t even realize I knew. Keep in mind that I learned these words 35 years ago, yet they were as fresh in my mind as if I’d committed them to memory that morning. The Scottish Play holds a special place in my heart, because it forced me to do a complete 180 on William Shakespeare. After my freshman year run-in with Romeo and Juliet and my sophomore year’s Julius Caesar, I was through with this dude and his fancy writing about topics that put my adolescent self to sleep.
Macbeth made me reconsider. Back then, I couldn’t put my finger on why it spoke to me so powerfully that it made me want to read more Shakespeare. But, as an adult, I understood. This play is like a film noir and I was a budding noirista as a teen. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” visually leans into my noirish interpretation. It’s shot in silvery, at times gothic black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, has a moody score by the great Carter Burwell, and takes place on incredible (and obviously fake) sets designed by Stefan Dechant. It also has more fog than San Francisco, the setting for so many great noirs. This makes sense, as Coen and his brother Ethan visited neo-noir’s genre neighborhood more traditionally in their 2001 film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” One might consider their debut, “Blood Simple” a neo-noir as well.
Like those films, this one also features McDormand as a shady lady, namely Lady Macbeth. She’s married to Washington’s Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. As the casting indicates, this couple is older than the one the Bard envisioned, which changes one’s perception of their motivations. Youthful ambition has given way to something else; perhaps the couple is way too conscious of all those yesterdays that “lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” At the Q&A after the free IMAX screening of this film, McDormand mentioned that she wanted to portray the Macbeths as a couple who chose not to have children early on, and were fine with the choice. This detail makes the murder of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) son all the more heartless and brutal, an act Coen treats with restraint but does not shy away from depicting.
Since The Scottish Play was first performed 415 years ago, all spoiler warnings have expired. Besides, you should know the plot already. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and the Thane of Glamis meet three witches (all played by theater vet Kathryn Hunter) on his way back from battle. They prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland. But first, he’ll become the Thane of Cawdor. When that part of the prediction becomes true, Macbeth thinks these medieval Miss Cleos might be onto something. Though he believes chance will crown him without his stir, Lady Macbeth goads him to intervene. As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage will be littered with dead bodies by the final curtain, each of whom will have screamed out “I am slain!” or “I am dead!” before expiring. Coen leaves that feature out of the movie, as you can see quite graphically how dead the bodies get on the screen.
King Duncan’s murder is especially rough. Washington and Brendan Gleeson play it as a macabre dance, framed so tightly that we feel the intimacy of how close one must be to stab another. It’s almost sexual. Both actors give off a regal air in their other scenes, though Washington’s is buoyed by that patented Den-ZELLL swagger. He even does the Denzel vocal tic, that “huh” he’s famous for, in some of his speeches, making me giddy enough to jump out of my skin with joy. Gleeson brings the Old Vic to his brief performance; every line and every moment feels like he’s communing with the ghosts of the famous actors who graced that hallowed London stage.
The other actors are well cast and bring their own gifts to their work. Stephen Root almost walks off with the picture as Porter. Alex Hassel gets more to do as Ross than I remembered. And there’s a great scene with an old man played by an actor I will not reveal. (Look real closely when he appears.) As for McDormand, she has her usual steely reserve, but I don’t think she fully shakes that off once we get to that “out, damned spot” scene. I had a similar problem with Washington’s scene at the banquet when he is haunted by a familiar specter. Both seem too confident to be in the thrall of temporary madness.
This “Macbeth” is as much about mood as it is about verse. The visuals acknowledge this, pulling us into the action as if we were seeing it on stage. But nowhere is the evocation of mood more prominent than in Kathryn Hunter’s revelatory performance as the Witches. There’s an otherworldliness to her appearance and her voice, as if she came from a dark place Macbeth should fear. You will have a hard time forgetting her work. She’s fantastic here, and Coen’s depiction of her cauldron bubbling is a highlight, as is the narrow staging of Macbeth’s final battle. Hawkins holds his own against the behemoth that is Denzel Washington, and their swordplay is swift and nasty.
One note of caution: High school students who use movies instead of reading the play will, as always, continue to fail English class. If chance would have you pass, then chance would pass you without your stir. So read the play, kids! Your own personal Mr. Kilinski will thank you.
Now playing in select theaters and available on Apple TV+ on January 14.
Denzel Washington as Macbeth
Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth
Alex Hassell as Ross
Bertie Carvel as Banquo
Brendan Gleeson as Duncan
Corey Hawkins as Macduff
Harry Melling as Malcolm
Miles Anderson as Lennox
Matt Helm as Donalbain
Stephen Root as Porter
Sean Patrick Thomas as Monteith