For better or for worse, the works of William Shakespeare are so deeply embedded into literary history that many of us encounter at least one of his narratives before we exit our teen years. Still, as much as the 16th-century playwright is revered and emulated, much of his work has remained beyond the reach of the average person. Now, almost 500 years after Shakespeare’s birth, Joel Coen, in his first solo directing effort, has offered up a stunning adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth without the overdone fillers and the exhausting remainings that have plagued recent adaptations.
Sticking to the core of the text and illuminating the film in a rich black and white, Coen offers his audience a depiction of the Scottish Lord through the magnetic Denzel Washington. As the tale goes, Macbeth learns from three witches (all portrayed wickedly by Kathryn Hunt) that he is to be the King of Scotland. Taking the news to his cunning and manipulative wife, devilishly played by Frances McDormand, the pair begin their plot against King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) so that Macbeth might see the witches’ prophecy play out.
A faithful retelling, Coen never lets his film deviate far from the original text. However, rather than getting bogged down by the old-world dialogue, Coen’s Macbeth moves at a steady pace which aids in the sharp and sinister tone, without rushing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s rapid descent into madness.
Washington is at his best here. He’s agile, charming, demanding, determined, and filled with greed. The actor allows his character’s paranoia to taunt the audience, wielding it with his haunted looks and shocking hallucinations.
Along with the Training Day actor, the other performances are top tier. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is even more sinister than her power-hungry husband. Corey Hawkins also rounds out the cast as the loyal Macduff along with Moses Ingram as Lady Macduff and Harry Melling and Matt Helm as King Duncan’s grieving sons. Interestingly enough, Coen doesn’t force his actors to adopt an English accent. Instead, they deliver their Shakespearean dialogue in the cadence of their normal accents, which further adds to the richness of this particular work.
The look of the film is equally as enticing as the acting. Coen, his set designer Stefan Dechant, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel have thrust this retelling of Macbeth somewhere in the meeting ground of cinema and stage. The settings from Macbeth’s castle to the battlegrounds in Scotland look in equal parts real and imagined.
At a runtime of just 105 minutes, Coen trusts his actors to breathe new life into the work without leaning into overly long sequences or indulgent camera angles. Moreover, the long legacies and careers of Washington and McDormant make them perfect for these roles. The Macbeths’ quest for power doesn’t seem drastic or even shocking. Instead, it almost feels like a logical step for a noble couple with no heirs or any real prospects for their dwindling future years.
Phenomenally dark and wicked, Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is the most worthy adaptation of a Shakespearean work that has been seen on screen in years.
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in theaters on Dec. 25 and streams on AppleTV+ beginning Jan. 14.