Joel Coen’s first solo film “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, which was released on Apple TV+ a few days ago, is a sparse but striking version of that ‘Scottish Play’ which is incidentally one of the best works of William Shakespeare. While it is mostly faithful to the overall plot of Shakespeare’s play besides some noticeable narrative condensation, the movie is often quite impressive in terms of mood, storytelling, and performance, and it is certainly another interesting movie adaptation to be mentioned along with several notable previous ones including Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957) and Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” (1971).
After the opening scene which succinctly establishes the ominously gloomy tone of the film, we see how Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) happens to be tempted by a sudden possibility of attaining more power in the near future. He has been a royal and brave general serving under King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), and he recently demonstrated his considerable royalty and valor for his king during the latest battle in Scotland, but then he comes across a trio of witches when he is returning to his king along with his close comrade/friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel). These three witches insidiously prophesy that Macbeth is going to be the Thane of Cawdor and then the King of Scotland, and they also give a small but significant prophesy for Banquo.
Macbeth is initially skeptical about the prophecy on his upcoming future, but, what do you know, he soon does become the new Thane of Cawdor as ordered by his king, and that naturally makes him much more ambitious than before. Mainly because he is not that young, he becomes more obsessed with that possibility of becoming the king before his death, and his cunning wife does not hesitate at all to boost his ambition more once she comes to learn of that prophecy from her husband.
And the chance comes to them sooner than expected as King Duncan later visits Macbeth’s castle. Although he is still hesitating over whether he can actually kill his king for becoming the next king, Macbeth eventually lets himself driven further by his ambition as well as his wife, and that consequently leads to a brief but shocking moment of violence.
Once he succeeds in eliminating King Duncan, there is no other obstacle in Macbeth’s subsequent rise to the throne, but, as many of you already know well, Macbeth becomes more paranoid in addition to struggling with the consequences of his horrible crime, and his wife also gradually finds herself being driven into madness as watching how cruel and ruthless her husband can be for maintaining their power as long as he can. While she is pretty good at pushing her husband into killing, she turns out to be much weaker than she thought at first, and we accordingly get that famous scene revealing what has been eating her day by day.
For emphasizing these two main characters’ increasingly unhinged and desperate status, the movie is packed with nightmarish qualities to be noticed. Shot in the black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, the movie is constantly shrouded in the dry and bleak sense of doom, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who previously collaborated with Coen and his brother in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) and “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs” (2018), provides a number of terrific shots to be admired for the skillful utilization of lights and shadows. The production design by Stefan Dechant and the costume design by Mary Zophres are austerely impressive under the stylized ambiance of the film, and I particularly appreciate how the deliberately claustrophobic aspects of Macbeth’s castle convey to us more of Macbeth and his wife’s accumulating desperation and madness.
Above all, the movie is firmly supported by two great American movie performers of our time. Denzel Washington, who is no stranger to Shakespeare plays considering his humorous supporting turn in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), gives another superlative performance which will surely garner him another Oscar nomination, and he deftly handles several big monologue scenes in the film including that well-known one which begins with “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”. As his equal acting partner, Frances McDormand, who incidentally played Lady Macbeth on stage before, is convincing in her character’s fateful psychological downfall along the story, and she does not disappoint us at all when her character finally reaches to the bottom of her madness around the end of the story.
Coen assembles a number of interesting performers around Washington and McDormand, and many of them have each own moment to shine. While Brendan Gleeson leaves an indelible impression despite his rather brief appearance, Alex Hassell, Henry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Moses Ingram, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ralph Ineson, Stephen Root, and Corey Hawkins are also solid in their respective supporting roles, and the special mention goes to Kathryn Hunter, who is quite spooky as playing all of the three witches in the story (She also plays another small supporting role in the film, by the way).
Overall, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” may feel a bit too dry for some of you, but it is still a very interesting experience to be savored for its many strong elements including the excellent performances from Washington and McDormand. In short, this is another highlight of last year, and I think you should check it out as soon as possible.