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The Tragedy of Macbeth: Fiery Performances and Striking Artistry

Image courtesy of A24 and Apple

It doesn’t matter how many times you watch William Shakespeare’s 17th century play Macbeth performed. It doesn’t matter where you see it adapted, whether it’s on a high school stage or a West End one, a DIY YouTube video, or the grandest silver screen treatment. Give the production an inspired look, let the verses stoke fire within the performers, and it’s like watching it glistening and fresh each time. Absolutely zero been-there-done-that lackadaisical malaise fills Joel Coen’s immaculately hewn The Tragedy of Macbeth. Observing its chosen performers and dwelling within its distinctive style will enliven even the most experienced eyes to see this play anew once again.

Working without his usual sibling collaborator, four-time Oscar winner Joel Coen aggressively rescripted the Bard’s 2,477 lines, normally equating nearly two-and-a-half hours of stage time, into a piquant 105-minute feature film. Teachers and students take notice. This is one of the best shortened takes on Macbeth you’ll ever find. You have found your go-to cinematic CliffNotes exemplar and ideal cheat sheet.

Better than that academic boost, you will find a zealous movie that stands with decisiveness as one of the finest films of the year. The Tragedy of Macbeth seizes that prominence with precisely those two aforementioned traits: an inspired look and fire within the performers. There is no shortness of acting brilliance or production value perfection in every corner and millisecond of this picture.

Lord Macbeth and Lady Macbeth touch foreheads in an embrace.
Image courtesy of A24 and Apple

Tony Award winner and two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington plays the titular Lord flanked by Triple Crown acting winner Frances McDormand as his Lady. After a victorious battle earned him a promotion of noble title from the Thane of Glamis to the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is cajoled by three witches (the physical stage chameleon Kathryn Hunter) into making a power play to become the next King of Scotland. This fateful meeting sets into motion a plotted regicide of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and the fallout of a multi-pronged prophesy that envelopes and overcomes corrupted royalty, goading spouses, trusted soldiers, and jilted connected players.

“Stars, hide your fires.” Good luck with covering any luster. Coen and his ensemble do not shy away from the play’s Shakespearean diction. Its sophistication and staccato are part of the searing beauty and hearty challenge for both acting and audience participants. The play’s words cauterize on their own, but masterful performers elevate the flames. Here, Shakespeare’s dreamy and powerful words are spoken by some of the best actors to ever grace the screen and not a volt of electricity is lost by this cast.

A demonstration of that comes from the supremacy of Denzel Washington crafting a fluid physical performance. Watch his ticks beyond merely standing and delivering lines. Notice his winces, fidgets, lip fluctuation, vocal gnashes, the glint he gives off, and even the pace of his breathing within line readings long and short. Washington doesn’t just hit a mark. He waltzes on it with gesticulating emphasis and wrinkled ease for what each moment demands.

Lady Macbeth looks up at her husband from bed.
Image courtesy of A24 and Apple

Compare Washington’s disquiet to the willowy stoicism of Michael Fassbender’s variation from Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth from 2015. It’s a different level of fire and volume with no less intensity. If you needed your Macbeth shouted, you’ve got it here. The very same sentiments and compliments can be shared to the performances of McDormand, Hunter, and key cast members Cory Hawkins (In The Heights) as Macduff and Alex Hassell (Cowboy Bebop) as Ross. Each has incisive roles that push the drama and tension onto and with Denzel’s lead.

If the titanic acting wasn’t enough, the artistry of The Tragedy of Macbeth enhances this adaptation even more and achieves a radical vision for the Bard’s work. If anyone questions how many ways you can retexture the same Scottish moors and woolen finery for stage or screen, come over here and marvel at the pristine minimalism that sets this film apart from its peers, especially Kurzel’s fiery kaleidoscope of mud and smoke from six years ago. The arthouse stylings of A24, fostered by AppleTV+, are on full display as the inspired type of look championed earlier.

The combination of light, framing, and setting depth are unparalleled in their uniqueness. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, a frequent collaborator with visual dynamos Tim Burton, Joe Wright, and the Coens, sheds color and width for a smashing black-and-white presentation shown in a nearly square 1:19:1 aspect ratio that will make Wes Anderson and Robert Eggers eat their hearts out. His lenses move tight and wide through angles of beaming light, opposing shadows, human silhouettes adorned in the costumes of Mary Zophres (La La Land), and all sorts of shades of gray that are quite fitting for this morality play brimming with darkness.

A witch stands within the fog of an empty battlefield.
Image courtesy of A24 and Apple

Much of that imposing essence also comes from the striking concrete and natural geometric creations of production designer Stefan Dechant (Kong: Skull Island), art director Jason T. Clarke (Loki), and set decorator Nancy Haigh (Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood). Akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Tragedy of Macbeth employs newfangled traditional special effects techniques emulated by Scott R. Fisher (Tenet) and backed by a smattering of VFX supervised by Michael Huber (mother!) that cleverly meld smooth dissolves and transitions within the foreground fog and hidden matte backgrounds.

The audio characteristics follow suit. Sound designer Craig Berkey (Roma) and mixer/editor Skip Lievsay (an Oscar winner for Gravity) pump up every recurring knock, drop, and clang that haunts the characters whom “every noise appalls”. Throbbing all along the way is a moody score from Coen stalwart Carter Burwell that increases the aura further. Put it all together and the flashy word of “atmospheric” is a meager understatement. The entire presentation paints the incredible illusion of a stage’s feel, but one that is bottomless, edgeless, and boundless.

Within these hefty performances, within the magnificent confines, the original play’s themes and motifs of a bona fide tragedy are still as deadly as a heart attack and substantial enough to fill volumes of lectures and examinations. This is where the women of McDormand and Hunter are the lynchpins. Through their poisonous persuasion, the height of the fall of moral order and ambition is not shortened or less flawed in this revised screenplay. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a traitorous festival of murder and it multiples properly. As Lord Macbeth asserts, “The deed is done.” From there, we wade in the same dread and marvel at a legendary collapse that is bold, bloody, and resolute.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved and Banana Meter-approved film critic writing here on 25YL Media and his own website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He is also one of the hosts of the 25YL-backed Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Internet Film Critics Society, Independent Film Critics of America, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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