'The Tragedy of Macbeth' review: Denzel Washington chews up the screen in thrilling adaptation
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There have been several adaptations of the Scottish play “Macbeth” in the last few years, lending to apprehension if another journey into the frail psychological state of a murderous mad king would be worth the hike. Within the first 10-minutes of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” those worries were quickly put to rest. Never mind the narrative has become a staple of high school curriculums across the country or became the bane of someone’s existence while taking a Shakespeare course, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” led with tantalizing scorn and reverence by the untouchable Denzel Washington, is a different type of Shakespearean beast.
For Coen, working for the first time without brother Ethan, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” feels like a departure for the “No Country for Old Men” Oscar winner who generally likes to play in his own sandbox. But his subtle beats and commitment to the source material creates a worthwhile adaptation and, aside from Washington, features a litany of impressive performances. Triple crown Oscar winner (and Coen’s wife) Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth and Kathryn Hunter embodying the three witches responsible for Macbeth’s doomed fate help catapult Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” into a league all its own.
Shot on a soundstage, presented in black-and-white and a matted aspect ratio (aka the most expensive looking PBS Masterpiece Theatre you’ll ever see), the narrative of “Macbeth” is still a head turner and Coen understands it’s not necessarily the language he should be tinkering with, but the visual motifs and glistening landscapes to encapsulate the viewer in this marvelous world. But nothing beats Washington chewing up classical monologues like yesterday’s breakfast and towering over actors with a forced perspective/towering physicality to get you in the mood for some mad shenanigans. Your grandparents Macbeth this is not.
Of course, it wouldn’t land all the right notes if not for McDormand’s shady Lady Macbeth egging on her husband after he’s given a prophecy that one day, he’ll be king. You wouldn’t assume McDormand and Washington would have this electric chemistry, but the two embody several classic Shakespearean passages with all the triumph of past iterations. This is still a story about greed, corruption, and murder, and even if the two pros lose some of the lustful desire that defines the characters in later stretches of the film, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” leaves plenty of room for a thrilling ride.
An incredible roster, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Henry Melling as his son, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Stephen Root, Sean Patrick Thomas, and “The Green Knight” himself Ralph Ineson, round out Coen’s sprawling saga. Macbeth and Shakespearean scholars should have no problem devouring this unique take on the property whereas casual viewers might struggle to see past the language barrier. If all else fails, Stefan Dechant’s otherworldly production design and Craig Berkey’s ominous sound work should fill the missing gaps. Otherwise, off with your head!
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH opens in theaters Christmas day and debuts on Apple TV+ January 14th.