Coen’s adaptation of the Scottish play is a stunning masterwork

One of the electives I took at my liberal arts high school was a class dedicated to Shakespeare. Our teacher had us recite the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue every morning and teasingly called the play we spent most of the semester studying and rehearsing “the Scottish play,” as it is believed to be bad luck to refer to Macbeth as its actual title.

Joel Coen’s 2021 film adaptation throws that old theatrical superstition out, blatantly using the full title, The Tragedy of Macbeth. With masterful cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis), the black and white film adds another layer of starkness to the drama’s setting. The film stars Denzel Washington as the power-hungry Scotsman. After a trio of witches predict he will be king, Macbeth and his wife (Frances McDormand) go about their bloody way of bringing this to pass.

The Tragedy of Macbeth features an inclusive cast, with some recognizable faces even in smaller roles — Stephen Root as an inebriated doorman is particularly memorable. Corey Hawkins (who also played Benny in In the Heights, released earlier this year) plays Macduff with a keen earnestness. It’s easy to see why the older Macbeth might see him as a threat.

British theater actress Kathryn Hunter amazes as the witches from the viewer’s first glimpse. Her limbs adjust this way and that. She has a bleak, soulless look and speaks in a voice so deep and worn that I was half spooked and instantly intrigued. The production design is surreal (Macbeth’s castle recalls a painting by de Chirico) and yet the film still has the look of being shot on a soundstage, reminding the viewer of the play’s theatrical origins.

Washington and McDormand capably lead the talented cast. While Washington’s sharp and flirty Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing holds a fond place in my heart, his Macbeth is one of the best performances this year. We see him first confused by the witches’ proclamation, then assured and conniving through nefarious means to keep power once he’s attained it.

The chords of Carter Burwell’s score are so haunting that I found myself humming a theme from the credits as I drove away from the screening. And in a year of so many drawn-out films, the tight editing in The Tragedy of Macbeth is a standout. Joel Coen, who adapted the screenplay as well as directed, keeps a fantastical edge to the work while infusing it with the wit we associate with a Coen film. It’s simply a marvel to see.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens theatrically Dec. 25, then streams exclusively on Apple TV+ starting January 14.

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