Shakespeare’s continued relevance sucks. Oh sure, his plays are “timeless masterpieces” that “redefined language.” But it’s decidedly not great that squinting isn’t necessary to see modern day reflections in a delusional fascist ruler encouraged by prophetic messages to violently secure power. A triumvirate of witches cackling predictions about forests that walk wouldn’t make a top 10 list of Most Bonkers QAnon Forecasts.
Joel Coen (Fargo¸ No Country for Old Men), not to be confused with Joel Cohen (Garfield), opts for minor tweakage of the bard with The Tragedy of Macbeth. If you’re not familiar with the play, congratulations on most likely having a more useful college degree than I do. Symbolism is foregrounded with plot waiting in the wings, as it’s just about Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand) deciding to seize the throne of Scotland at knifepoint. Wildly unpleasant things happen thereafter, notably including spots, witchcraft, and infanticide.
Critiquing the script feels a bit “Christopher Marlowe.” The success of Shakespearean film adaptations always comes down to what savory toppings got dumped on the Elizabethan cinematic popcorn. Perhaps most notably here, McDormand plays Lady Macbeth as neither a puppetress nor tragic victim but as a caring coconspirator undone in parallel to her bloody-handed lord. Washington largely resists “going big,” strategically deploying his bombastic scene chewing.
Both are expectedly great, but Kathryn Hunter is next-level jaw-dropping as the Weird Sisters. From her contortionist entrance to her coy appearances throughout, every instant she is on the screen is appropriately spellbinding. If Judy Dench can get an Academy Award for showing up the length of a sneeze in Shakespeare in Love, Hunter damn well better be stirring her cauldron with an Oscar by spring. The other players play well too, from Corey Hawkins as a grimly just Macduff to the always-delightful Stephen Root as the only funny dude in all of Scotland. But Hunter’s turn will stick to your brain like a blessed curse.
Although black-and-white can feel like a pretentious film option, once you’re doing Shakespeare, you may as well roll with it. The effect here reiterates the emulation of classic stage and cinema, from the sparse practical sets to the nostalgic cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel. The contrast between the nuanced, delicate modern acting and the throwback visuals and script creates a blissfully hallucinatory feel. It’s nightmarelike in an oddly pleasant way, even if the thematic condemnation of personal ambition and narcissistic governance is decidedly upsetting.
Everyone in love thinks The Beatles are speaking to them. Every sociopolitical dynamic still echoes back to Billy Shakes. Humanity hasn’t really come a long way, baby. YMMV when it comes to drinking deep from the poet of Stratford-upon-Avon. If you are so predisposed, as far as largely straightforward adaptations go, you’d need a literal sorceress to do it much better than this.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Collier “CJ” Jennings at Buy Why Tho? says “Coen hits the high notes of Macbeth in a breezy runtime that skirts under two hours, often choosing to let his camera favor actors as they deliver monologues, or the scenery, which is stark in both design and how it’s captured on film.”
Karen Gordon at Original Cin says “For me, the Coens’ movies have always been a kind of Old Testament discussion on the meaning of one person’s life in a silent universe. Is there a God, and if so do we even matter to him or her? Or do we live in a Godless universe where our struggles and difficulties are all for naught?”
Travis Hopson at Punch Drunk Critic says “If you know each line by heart you’ll probably recite them as the film goes along. But a recitation is all this version of Macbeth is. The soul is, sadly, long gone.”