Combustible Celluloid
With: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Kathryn Hunter, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Moses Ingram, Ralph Ineson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Stephen Root, Brian Thompson, Richard Short
Written by: Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Running Time: 105
Date: 12/25/2021

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Be-All and the End-All

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Stark and severe, and with a level of artistry rarely achieved in movies, this black-and-white tragedy may be the best Macbeth ever made, and certainly one of the best of all Shakespeare adaptations.

In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return from war. They encounter three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter), who offer prophecies. Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, and then king. Banquo will not be king, but he will be the father of future kings. Back in Scotland, Macbeth learns that he has now, indeed, been named Thane of Cawdor. He begins thinking about the next prophecy.

Meanwhile, the current king (Brendan Gleeson) plans to spend the night at the Macbeth castle. Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) talks her husband into killing the king, over Macbeth's own misgivings. He goes through with the deed, and the murder is blamed on two drunk chamberlains. Now king, Macbeth begins to obsess about Banquo and the other part of the prophecy. Worse, Lady Macbeth begins to come unraveled, and the witches return with even stranger prophecies.

Director Joel Coen — for the first time working without his brother Ethan — treads ground formerly trod by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski, and surpasses them all with his expressionistic, intensely vivid The Tragedy of Macbeth. The angles and lines and blades of light displayed onscreen by Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel slashes the play down to its most elemental, primal levels. All staginess is gone. It's exhilarating. It's as if the play were always meant to be a movie... this movie.

Washington is magisterial in the title role, bringing his singular vocal flavor to the dialogue, and providing an inner uncoiling as Macbeth loses his way. (Washington had previous Shakespeare experience in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.) Sharp and commanding, McDormand might have been born to play Lady Macbeth, unsexed and thick-blooded. Theater veteran Kathryn Hunter is likewise astonishing as all three witches, coming across like nightmarish praying (or preying) mantises.

Even the score by Carter Burwell, whose work is often lush and luxurious, creates spare, cautionary music that sounds like a death knell. Every element of The Tragedy of Macbeth, from the hard, cold furniture to the swirling crows and drifting fog, is exactly right, but it's a precision that gets to the heart of the tale's dark emotions.

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