by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Stephen Root
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of murder and guilt gets a stylistic re-telling with moody direction from Joel Coen and powerhouse performances from its two leads.

I am of two minds when thinking about Joel Coen’s take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

First, I must admit I am no Shakespeare scholar. I can count on one hand (maybe two) the number of filmed Shakespeare adaptations I have seen, and I can count on one finger how many theatrical productions I’ve seen. I’ve only read two of the Bard’s plays beginning to end: Othello and Julius Caesar. I have acted in a production of the popular Shakespeare parody The Compleat Workes of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but I doubt anyone would find that an acceptable credential.

So I must be honest and say that, when it comes to the nitty gritty specifics of the dialogue in The Tragedy of Macbeth, I was lost for, oh, 50-60% of the time. Like, “out to sea” lost. I am moderately familiar with the story, so in those times I was lost, I was able to glean what was going on or what was being said in context. I know who Banquo and Macduff and poor Duncan are, and so was able to follow their various comings and goings as revealed in the frequent chunks of expositional dialogue.

[Full disclosure: If the name of the Ross character is ever actually mentioned in the film, I must have missed it…for the duration, I wondered what his name was, and he is a vital character in certain scenes.]

But I have to say, whatever I missed in the dialogue was more than compensated for by the sensational visual language of the film, and by the stunning performances from the two leads.

First, it was shot in glorious black-and-white, and it was all shot on soundstages, giving the director (Joel Coen, working for the first time without his brother Ethan) and cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel [Amélie, Across the Universe]) absolute control over the lighting and shadows. The resulting visuals look like something out of the early silent films of Fritz Lang and, especially, F.W. Murnau, with compositions that must have taken hours and hours to set up, with high-contrast shadows creating elaborate framing devices on walls and floors. When Macbeth famously sees a dagger before him, it’s accomplished by shining a reflective light on a highly polished door handle. In the few shots that take place outside the castle, more often than not shadows are moving slightly in the frame, as if the sun or the clouds were in constant motion. Those shadows always seem to be sliding down over the characters, perhaps mirroring Macbeth and his lady’s constant downward spiral towards their fate.

Another factor in the visual look of the film was the decision to frame it in the standard 1:33 ratio, sometimes known as the “Academy” ratio. Basically, instead of watching the film on a rectangle-shaped viewing area, you’re watching it on a square set in the middle of the screen. One might think that doing so would limit the possibilities of visual expression, but not so. For me, it had the effect of making everything a little more claustrophobic, which I think is important in cementing the state of mind of our two main characters. As the guilt over their evil deeds threatens to overwhelm them both, the smaller screen is a constant, subtle reminder that their options are limited, and becoming fewer as time goes on.

All in all, a visual feast, in a nutshell.

But what makes The Tragedy of Macbeth even more delightful to watch are the performances. To be sure, everyone involved acquits themselves incredibly well. (Keep your eyes open for a young man named Harry Melling, aka “Dudley Vernon” from the Harry Potter film franchise.) But the two that shine brightest are Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is as quietly vicious and malicious as they come, and it helps that her attitudes are quite at odds with McDormand’s kind, open features. It is a little startling to see the face of good-hearted Marge Gunderson fiercely exhorting Macbeth to commit regicide in sharp, clipped tones, her whispers piercing the air between them like poison darts. Her despair at her husband’s inability to calmly deal with the guilt is clearly evident; when he reveals he went above and beyond what was originally planned, her shocked “are-you-kidding-me” looks are worth pages and pages of dialogue. And, of course, in the late stages of the story, when madness finally overtakes her, when no amount of washing will wipe the blood from her hands, her animalistic howls of anguish are almost worth the price of admission.

But the highlight of the whole venture (for me, anyway) was watching Denzel Washington demolish the screen as Macbeth himself. Words fail me. I haven’t seen a performance this amazing and praiseworthy since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. I may not be a Shakespeare scholar, but I know enough to understand that making it flow as easily as normal speech takes a great deal of research and rehearsal and collaboration. What I would not GIVE to see him reprise this role on stage somewhere! He navigates the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s tortured syntax as easily as if he was telling a story about his day at work. As with any great performance, there are peaks and valleys, and his teeth-clenching, fist-pumping outbursts are used as periodic punctuation marks, not entire sentences. There is a brief scene where he angrily berates a messenger, and his seventeenth-century taunts and name-callings are as surgical and cutting as anything from Mamet. It’s a miraculous performance, and I would not be surprised in the least if he gets another Oscar nomination. (The same goes for Frances McDormand…what a duo!)

(I would be remiss if I did not also mention the performance by a little-known actress, Kathryn Hunter, as the famous Witches. Her voice and face open the film, and if there’s any justice, it will go down as one of the great opening sequences of the movies. There are portions of her performance that must have taken great courage and trust in director Coen, to make sure she did not come off as simply a kook. She does not. She is one of the most ineffably creepy individuals in a movie in quite some time. I dare not say more without ruining the effect. But she was breathtakingly successful.)

When I walked out of The Tragedy of Macbeth, I can clearly remember thinking, “Well, great movie, but one that I wouldn’t purchase for my home video library, because how can it possibly equal the experience of seeing these precise visuals married to these insane performances, on a big screen?” But the more I think about it, the more I think I will pick up a copy when it becomes available, for a couple of reasons. First, a little extra culture never hurt anyone, and second, it will be worth the purchase price just to see Washington and McDormand tear up the screen as the Macbeths again, not to mention those stunning visuals, AND those creepy witches. This movie is really growing on me.

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