Writer-director Joel Coen slips away from his filmmaking partner and close brother Ethan in his first solo effort, “The Tragedy of MacBeth”. Coen (who also produced the film alongside his wife Frances McDormand) takes on William Shakespeare’s classic Scottish play, stripping it down and putting just as much emphasis on the haunting visuals as the bard’s eloquent words.
Joel Coen’s captivating take on MacBeth is shot in high-contrast black-and-white and in 1.19:1 boxy aspect ratio which immediately hearkens back to the golden age of cinema. At the same time, some of the images he and DP Bruno Delbonnel capture could be pulled from the pages of a graphic novel. The movie was filmed entirely on soundstages allowing Coen, Delbonnel, and set designer Stefan Dechant to create a bleak and foreboding hellscape, perfectly fitting for the story’s psychological and bloody descent.
Who better than Denzel Washington to play the titular Thane of Glamis, a valiant and renowned general in the Scottish army. We first see MacBeth on his way to report his war victories to the benevolent King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). While journeying across the hot sands with his trusted friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel), MacBeth encounters three witches (played by a terrifying Kathryn Hunter) who prophesy of his rise to power.
The first part of the crones’ vision comes true, but MacBeth is quickly consumed with the rest. He wants more power – he wants Duncan’s throne. Urged by his wicked wife (McDormand), MacBeth hatches a plan to commit the damnable offense of regicide. But such wickedness comes with consequences, and soon guilt and paranoia drive the unrighteous new king to the brink of madness.
While watching Coen unfurl his dark vision of MacBeth, you’ll notice more than a hint of theatricality. There’s an undeniable stagy aspect to the film both visually and narratively. At the same time, it’s a stunningly cinematic movie with the seasoned filmmaker making terrific use of space, light and shadows. Surround the imagery with Carter Burwell’s stark and ominous score, and you have a grim and forbidding atmosphere that serves the material well.
Back to the performances, Coen brings together a stellar supporting cast that includes McDormand, Gleeson, Hunter, a terrific Corey Hawkins as Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife, Harry Melling as King Duncan’s son Malcolm, Alex Hassell as the vulturous Ross, and Ralph Ineson as The Captain. But it all comes back to Washington who delivers the dense period language with confidence and grace. His Macbeth is more calculated than brutish, although as his heart grows colder Washington shows us a more chilling side of madness.
With his version of “MacBeth” Joel Coen proves himself as a solo director, but is that surprising to anyone? He and his brother Ethan have cemented themselves as arguably the best filmmaking duo of our time. Here, the elder Coen brings his proven visual and screenwriting know-how to some well-traveled material, joining two Oscar winners to put a new spin on timeless Shakespeare’s tragedy. The results are wickedly satisfying and I’m already anxious to see it a second time.
“The Tragedy of MacBeth” will have a limited theatrical release December 25th before streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14th.