The Tragedy of Macbeth is now streaming on Apple TV+.
BY Palmer Rubin
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
A bit of a cheat, since it went into theaters on Christmas and only just arrived on streaming. With omicron raging harder than ever, it’s not really feasible to safely watch movies in a theater right now. But what we do have is another adaptation of Macbeth (“The Scottish Play” in theater kid circles, where it’s believed saying the name casually is bad luck), the second in half a decade. The previous adaptation had Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Thane of Glamis and Lady Macbeth (is it bad luck if you say her character name?), conditioning the story into a moody action film. Joen Coen, separate from his brother for the first time, imagines the Scottish Play as an abstract art piece. Filmed on obvious sets, in black-and-white, stark geometric shapes, it is the play as fever dream. Denzel Washington, already a titan in his own regard, plays the future king, and the great Frances McDormand is the future queen. Much like the Bard once wrote, the Thane and his trusty friend Banquo encounter three witches who prophesize future greatness and ruin. The talented but arrogant warrior takes it to heed, and the moves he makes as a result will break the lives of everyone around him. You’ve seen it all before.
But even so, just because you’ve seen it all before doesn’t mean there’s nothing to pay attention to. I was a bit of a Shakespeare nut as a kid, even if I never really understood most of the wording. I think the way we learn Shakespeare can be detrimental to the way we experience literature and the theater. It has to be seen, it’s not enough to just have kids reciting the lines in classes. Coen’s version fully embraces the parts of the play normally obfuscated, like how a typically wordy monologue is an elaborate metaphor for erectile dysfunction. He casts the Thanes of Glamis and Cawdor far older than normal so that they’re now desperate minor nobles nearing middle age instead of young and impetuous social climbers. Denzel and Frances are not playing them as cold-blooded murderers, but desperate people realizing that they’ll have to commit unethical acts in order to be remembered despite never having children. It’s antiquated by design, that one’s noble line be decided in such clinical ways. Coen seems aware of this. It’s so far outside of what you’d expect from him and his brother that it can be really off-putting at first. I think a genuinely good choice is to reframe those famous monologues as just that, someone’s internal voice as if all of us could hear it. He doesn’t have characters projecting very loudly the way we expect Shakespeare to be like. Denzel often delivers the choice lines with his unique cadence, often quiet and soft. Some of the most famous lines feel like asides, and that feels like the right choice for something both old and new.
But what has to be said, and has been said by a lot of people, how the performance to beat is Kathryn Hunter as the three witches. Normally, you have three actors playing three witches, but she does all three at once. I mean this as a compliment: every scene with her feels like the scene in The Two Towers where Gollum speaks to himself. She both plays all three characters in one body, changing her voice for each one, but also as three people acting off one another. She contorts her body like a pretzel in the film’s scariest sequence. You’re going to be both entranced and horrified, it’s like every good campfire story wrapped up into a single performance. She’s on another level altogether, and fully amps up the creepiness that adaptations often don’t bother with. What Coen is doing here, old collaborators Bruno Delbonnel on the lens and Carter Burwell providing the score, is finding the modern cadence for an oft-told story. The performers at his disposal are doing just as much to find the balance. Even with the amount of times someone’s wording flew over my head (and it was a lot, Shakespeare is not the most accessible), the emotional cadence still dictated how we as an audience will react to a particular scene. Actors aren’t just standing next to one another projecting to the back, they’re wavering their voice as they justify bloody murder and let the emotions tell the story. If you’re a Shakespeare aficionado, you’re hearing and seeing it fully realized, and if you’re not, you’re able to follow along. I fell away from Shakespeare after that brief phase as a kid, so I’m more in the latter category. It’s a difficult thing to explain because it has to be seen to be believed.
Is it the best of the year? That’s subjective, maybe for some it will be. What it speaks to more is showing the tale about desperation and what it makes us do rather than just a morality tale. It allows for the complexity and the nuance, even if the historical accuracy is almost nil. That’s not what we sign up for. What it never does is bore you. There’s something bittersweet about this being the first film made after the Coens split up, much the same way we just had the Wachowskis do the same. Their films have not always been my cup of tea, but I always could appreciate the craft on display even when it didn’t click for me. This is one of those times that it did. This is tremendous.
I give The Tragedy of Macbeth an A-.