Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ (the Scottish play)

Something wicked this way comes.

After successfully leading the army of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) against a traitor to the crown, Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) encounter a trio of witches (Kathryn Hunter) on their return. The witches hail Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor and future king, but they also declare Banquo will father a line of kings. True to their word, King Duncan executes the defeated Thane of Cawdor before naming Macbeth, but a letter sent to Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) regarding said predictions sets darker plans into motion — self-fulfilling prophecies all.

Half of the infamous Coen Brothers, Joel takes on both adaptation and directorial duties to re-imagine the work by William Shakespeare. Set in a monochromatic purgatory damned between stage and screen, an all-star cast has been conjured up with only the details that matter. While the production invokes classic fare like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, it also utilizes a bare stage design, providing minimal sets and necessary props for a timeless look. There aren’t a lot of surprises here — it’s the Bard’s infamous Scottish play, after all — but unlike Baz Luhrmann’s reinterpretation Romeo + Juliet, has Joel only made the latest version, or has he created something to stand the test of time?

It’s hard to imagine a more diverse and talented cast than the one assembled here. Having scene-stealer Kathryn Hunter portray all three witches (not to mention showcasing her capability as a contortionist) sets a tense and uneasy tone, accentuated by Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and scored by Coen collaborator Carter Burwell. Something old and something new in glorious black and white, the filmed stage play strips visuals down to bare elements, shrouding irrelevance in billowing mists and pools of darkness. It’s almost enough to wish Macbeth a successful coup… because somewhere, Tim Burton is surely smiling.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth doesn’t exactly seem like fodder for a Coen film, yet it’s right up A24’s nightmare alley, invoking old Universal monster flicks. Decisive moments each hang like a tableau, but it doesn’t spare the action whenever a scene calls for it. The production was reportedly shot all on sound stages before computer visuals enhanced it, creating depth and resolution this format rarely enjoys. Recent films like The Lighthouse, Mank, and 2021’s Passing also utilize the black and white format to various effect, but only Macbeth uses it to suggest all the world’s a stage. One minor nod to the video game community: if there’s any prop at an otherwise empty location, it’ll be important soon enough.

While rumors persisted as far back as 2011 the Coen Brothers planned to tackle the horror genre, younger brother Ethan’s reported decision to step away from movie making appears to have nixed any prospect of that for the time being. Joel’s take on Macbeth, however, suggests a dark undercurrent that could evolve into an original bloodcurdling project in the future. Any thoughts on adapting Howard Richardson and William Berney’s’ Dark of the Moon?

The Tragedy of Macbeth is rated R for violence and getting everything you ever wished for coming to you.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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