Greetings again from the darkness. The confounding part about screen adaptions of great and familiar literary works is that we have each already formed our mental images of characters and setting. Adapting Shakespeare’s 400 year old play is Joel Coen (4 time Oscar winner, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), and it’s also his first time to fly solo as director without his brother Ethan. Filmed in black and white on a sound stage, this production may lack the frills we’ve come to expect in modern times, yet while its stark sets recall German Expressionism, the film still manage to deliver memorable visuals.
Denzel Washington (2 time Oscar winner, TRAINING DAY, GLORY) stars as Macbeth, while Mr. Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand (4 time Oscar winner, NOMADLAND) is a perfect fit as the scheming Lady Macbeth. The absolute best and creepiest sequences are thanks to terrific work from stage actor Kathryn Hunter, who plays not one witch, but rather the trio (plus, in true Shakespearian fashion, a fourth character later). Ms. Hunter’s work is a highlight as she contorts her body and rings out prophecy with an exceedingly disturbing voice. She is fantastic. It’s the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become King of Scotland that sets into action a chain of events familiar to most of us.
The reasons this didn’t work as well for me as it did for others include Denzel’s extremely low-key performance in the first half, and more crucially, the film lacks that unbridled lust for power that so attracts me to this particular story. It struck me more as a story of a disgruntled couple than the timeless themes of corruption and lust for power that Shakespeare so expertly crafted. Denzel’s performance does come alive in the second half and he’s quite something to watch. However, it’s Ms. McDormand who nails the Lady Macbeth role and ensures our attention doesn’t drift. Although obvious, it must be noted that these two renowned actors are a bit old for the roles, but interesting enough, this elements adds a different perspective to the characters’ ambitions.
Supporting performances include Brendan Gleeson (is he ever not a standout?) as the ill-fated King Duncan, and Harry Melling as Malcolm and Matt Helm as Donalbain, Duncan’s two sons. Corey Hawkins plays Macduff, Bertie Carvel is Banquo, and Stephen Root is the scene-stealing (and comic relief) Porter. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel treats us to some creative shots and angles … and plenty of birds. But of course, it’s Denzel and McDormand who will make or break this for you.
Director Coen does include the familiar lines: “Something wicked this way comes” inspired writer Ray Bradbury, Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot” still packs a punch, while Macbeth’s “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” remains my personal favorite. With the stark sets, Coen serves up a shadowy presentation – or is it a presentation of shadows? It’s a blend of stage and screen, yet never fully both. Despite some of my displeasures and the long-lasting curse, overall it’s a welcome version of “the Scottish play” … although I still prefer reading The Bard’s prose.
Opening in theaters on December 25, 2021 and streaming on AppleTV+ on January 14, 2022