Ah yes, Macbeth, or “the Scottish play” as my fellow thespians call it. The tragic Shakespearian tale of greed, power, madness, and murder most foul makes another trip to the silver screen courtesy of the brilliant Joel Coen (Fargo, Raising Arizona).
Sinking your teeth right into this gloriously moody, surreal, and stark black & white movie is the victory of Scottish Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) over his enemies. This pleases the King (Brendan Gleeson), but pisses-off Macbeth when the King favors Prince Malcolm (Harry Melling) instead. Filled with anger and bolstered by a prophecy from some weird witch sisters (all played by Kathryn Hunter, in a truly creepy role), Macbeth decides, along with his conniving wife (Frances McDormand), to murder the King, frame his bodyguards, and then take the throne. Easy! What could possibly go wrong?!
No sooner than the deed is done, Macbeth’s heinous act (like in Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart) comes back to haunt him in the form of madness and corruption. Thinking everyone is out to get him, and getting more intel from the witch(es), he orders up more murders, with the help of his bestie, Ross (Alex Hassell). On his hit list are his former friends, Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and his pre-teen son (Lucas Barker), plus the English Lord, Macduff (Corey Hawkins). But Macduff has joined with Prince Malcolm and was away when Macbeth’s assassins came a’callin to his castle. When Macduff finds out what happened, he goes ballistic and that means one only thing. . . WAR!
This isn’t your traditional Shakespearian movie like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing, which also starred Denzel Washington. This adaption is more like something from the 30’s, and shot by Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari) with geometric designs, forced perspective hallways, 60’s series Star Trek-like outdoor sets, and beautiful, jaw-dropping scene transitions that reminded me of Richard Williams’ breath-taking A Christmas Carol 1971 animation special. You could tell Joel Coen was really playing around (experimenting) with camera trickery, magnificent use of light & shadow, and having the actors walk up to the camera for their close-up, instead of the opposite. This is less a Shakespeare play and more a class on How To Direct A Film.
But of all Coen’s bravura directing, the acting does not pale by comparison. Speaking the Bard’s words is a tricky thing to do, and Denzel delivers it with ease and power. McDormand is equally excellent with her on-point performance, as is the entire cast. Hassell is sufficiently underhanded as Macbeth’s buddy and Hawkins is solid as Macduff. Look for an understated Harry Melling (he used to be Dudley Dursley!) as the Prince, and stealing every scene is Kathryn Hunter as the single witch who speaks for all three. She is unnerving, disturbing, and looks like she should be in a Blumhouse horror film! If you’re a fan of authentic Shakespeare told in a surreal, almost unearthly way, you’ll love this!
**Now showing in selected theaters; moves to the Apple TV+ streaming service on Jan. 14th