Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: Film Review | NYFF 2021

A first-rate cast and stunning craftsmanship bring surging vitality to Shakespeare’s political thriller about an ambitious couple whose murderous power grab sends them spiraling into madness.

Furious and fleet, emotional and elemental, Joel Coen’s stripped-down take on the Scottish play instantly secures its place among the most audacious modern screen adaptations of Shakespeare. The extended title makes sense, given that Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, leading a superlative ensemble, play not just the ruthless thirst for power but also the anxious race against time to seize their place in history, instead sealing their self-destruction. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a raw, lucid retelling, rendered spellbinding by its enveloping stylized design and its masterful black-and-white visuals, evoking the chiaroscuro textures of Carl Theodor Dreyer.

That latter aspect makes French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel as indispensable a collaborator to Coen as his fine actors, with the otherworldly plot elements of superstition, dark magic and compressed time embedded into the aesthetic fiber of the film. But the same could be said of production designer Stefan Dechant, who has created a Scottish landscape of the dissembling mind on Los Angeles soundstages, with stark exteriors and cold, forbidding castles that recall the geometric architecture in the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, their long, deep shadows threatening to engulf the characters.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Bottom Line

Blood will have blood.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Main Slate, Opening Night)
Release date: Saturday, Dec. 25
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter
Director-screenwriter: Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare

Rated R,
1 hour 45 minutes

Following its premiere as the opening-night gala of the 59th New York Film Festival, the film opens Dec. 25 through A24, ahead of its streaming bow Jan. 14 on Apple TV+. This is a work, however, that greatly repays the theatrical experience, not just with its mesmerizing imagery, but also with its gut-churning sound design and powerful use of Carter Burwell’s suspenseful score, full of thundering percussion and insidious strings.

Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, focused so much attention on the text’s visceral physicality that the complex internal rhythms of each scene and the brutal beauty of the language were often lost in a mumbly dirge that only really came alive on the battlefield. Coen, by contrast, leans into the theatricality with his abstract visual presentation while ensuring an excitingly cinematic reading by whittling each scene down to its intimate psychological essence.

Casting Washington and McDormand, two actors in their mid-60s, adds urgency to their characters’ stakes, for a start. Their chances of producing an heir are behind them — with an oblique but sorrowful reference to the loss of at least one child — and Macbeth’s days of glory in battle must surely be slowing down, even if the film opens with his triumph, fresh from crushing a rebellion against King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). But when his valor earns him a promotion to Thane of Cawdor, he immediately sets his sights on higher office, a goal planted in his head by the three witches. Or perhaps it was already there, festering.

In that first encounter, Coen dips into a horror vibe that’s very much in line with the A24 stamp of filmmakers like Robert Eggers. All three of the “weird sisters” are played by the brilliant British theater actress and director Kathryn Hunter, who uses her diminutive physique like a rubber-limbed contortionist and her graveyard rumble of a voice like a sorceress. Confronting Macbeth and his trusted comrade Banquo (Bertie Carvel) on their homeward path across the fogbound Scottish moors, as ravens circle and swoop overhead, this birdlike yet far from fragile figure is mirrored by two reflections in a pond, speaking in unison with her until they gradually become three separate entities. When they address Macbeth as “King hereafter,” he listens.

Back at the castle, McDormand’s Lady Macbeth eagerly consumes this prophesy in a letter that she burns and sends flaming into the night sky. When she calls upon the spirits to “unsex me,” there’s an erotic charge to McDormand’s delivery, as if she’s inviting an unseen lover to remove the shackles of her gender and fill her with “direst cruelty.”

Washington brings a thoughtful gravitas to his role, so when Lady Macbeth hatches the regicide plot, he’s hesitant at first. Incensed over the King’s seemingly feckless son Malcolm (Harry Melling) being named Prince of Cumberland and placed next in line for the throne, Macbeth capitulates to his wife’s wishes. But still he requires convincing, even if that means talking himself into it. The death of Duncan is swift, bloody and shocking, and the plot accelerates from that point on, as the Macbeths’ naked ambition keeps upping the body count.

While McDormand initially becomes steelier — memorably fainting into Washington’s arms at news of the murder to which she’s been an accomplice, but never dimming her laser focus — Washington’s Macbeth begins unraveling almost immediately. No sooner has he ascended to the throne than he grows fearful and impulsive in his desperation to hold onto it, removing anyone in his way.

Many actors have played Macbeth as a tyrant; others as a weak man enfeebled by blind ambition and controlled by a manipulative wife. Washington digs into the interiority of the character, making him vulnerable above all to the doubts that cloud his own mind, and his pact with Lady Macbeth is one of equals, grasping for power while they still have time. The film doesn’t try to sympathize with the couple, nor make them into victims of a society that rewards strongman leaders. But it does locate the tragic dimension in them setting something fatalistic in motion that they can’t stop.

Every death carried out on Macbeth’s orders inflicts psychological violence back on him, and eventually on Lady Macbeth as she watches her husband and king lose his grip. The heavy toll starts with Banquo, whose blood has barely stopped flowing when his ghost manifests in an unsettling scene at a royal banquet, accompanied by the squawking ravens that Coen uses like a Hitchockian motif.

Macbeth’s instability intensifies with the reappearance of the witches, sharing more cryptic prophesies that give him false confidence. But he also grows more rash in his actions. When the Scottish lord Macduff (Corey Hawkins) flees to England to join the fugitive Malcolm, Macbeth takes revenge by ordering the killing of his wife (Moses Ingram), children and servants. Carried out in a castle on the edge of a lonely promontory, this is a wrenching scene, as is the one that follows, in which Macduff learns of the murders and is gutted with grief. Coen’s restraint in intimating more violence than he generally shows is highly effective.

The propulsive nature of the storytelling builds to a crescendo and then breathes as the attention turns again to Lady Macbeth, broken by the treachery of which she’s been a part and sleepwalking in the courtyard, babbling about her complicity in the murders. “Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles,” observes the doctor (Jefferson Mays). While Lady Macbeth’s progression from guilt and madness to suicide is usually played out offstage, McDormand takes us to the very edge of that final moment, all the more chillingly because we see clearly how it will happen but don’t witness the act itself.

The director’s trims to the text are quite seamless, tightening the pace without unduly sacrificing the verse. Even the frequently cut scene with the drunken porter remains in place, giving Stephen Root an amusingly showy moment as he rushes to admit Macduff, whose knocking at the castle gates booms like the gates of hell, even before news of Duncan’s assassination has broken.

The supporting cast across the board is outstanding, bringing authority and clarity to the language without ever falling into the declamatory trap. The always impressive Gleeson makes an indelible mark in his truncated screen time as the well-loved King; Hawkins continues to prove himself a uniquely magnetic actor with formidable backbone; Carvel brings noble integrity to Banquo; Melling upends initial impressions by making Malcolm a young man of substance; and rising star Ingram is heartbreakingly lovely in her brief scene as Lady Macduff. Hunter’s virtuoso vocal and physical work as the three witches is no less thrilling than her distinctive take on Puck in Julie Taymor’s wonderful A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Perhaps the most surprising presence is Ross, a Scottish lord often lost in the shuffle of carnage and chaos who here takes on the compelling persona of a shrewd politician, ably playing both sides. Alex Hassell deftly teases out the ambiguity of his character’s loyalties, slinking about in a monastic tunic that clings to his slender hips like a knit dress on a supermodel.

Mary Zophres’ costumes throughout add visual interest, blurring the lines of the medieval setting in keeping with the abstraction elsewhere. The plaited leather of Macbeth’s armor, his quilted royal tunic and Lady Macbeth’s brocade gown are particular standouts.

This is Joel Coen’s first solo feature without his brother and regular co-director Ethan, so naturally the feel is different from everything else in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. But there’s a thematically coherent throughline in the fascination with crime, retribution and the confusion that reigns in between.

The project was driven in large part by the director’s wife, McDormand, who, like Washington, has continued over the decades to return regularly to her stage roots. Both lead performances are among the best of the actors’ celebrated careers, fiercely driven yet underscored by haunting notes of desolation as they see the price of their folly. The film has occasional echoes of both Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation, Throne of Blood. But it’s as contemporary as it is classical, hurtling toward grim finality with the same gale force that blows a torrent of leaves into the castle when Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill, as the witches warned.

Full credits

Venue: New York Film Festival (Main Slate, Opening Night)
Distributor: A24/Apple TV+
Production companies: Apple Original Films, A24, IAC Films
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson, Lucas Barker, Stephen Root, Robert Gilbert, Ethan Hutchison, James Udom, Richard Short, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ralph Ineson, Jefferson Mays
Director-screenwriter: Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Producers: Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, Robert Graf
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Stefan Dechant
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editors: Lucian Johnston, Reginald Jaynes
Music: Carter Burwell
Supervising sound editor: Skip Lievsay
Visual effects supervisors: Alex Leme, Michael Huber
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth

Rated R, 1 hour 45 minutes