The plot is familiar from high school English class. Three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) prophesize that Macbeth (Denzel Washington), a heroic general in King Duncan’s (Brendan Gleeson) army, is bound for glory. He will be named Thane of Cawdor, they say, and one day, if he has the backbone, King. It’s welcome news for the ambitious warrior and his ruthlessly Machiavellian wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), who helps kickstart her husband’s rise to power by devising a plot to kill the King.
Their bloody coup sees the well-liked Duncan murdered, triggering Macbeth’s ascent to the throne. The couple’s lust for power leads to a reign of terror, which includes the wholesale slaughter of King Duncan loyalist Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) family and a civil war.
The crown sits heavily on their collective heads. The new power couple are soon overwhelmed by insomnia, festering paranoia and guilt. “By the pricking of my thumbs,” says one of the witches, “something wicked this way comes.”
Adapted for the screen by director Joel Coen, working for the first time without his brother Ethan, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” blends theatre and cinema in a seamless and powerful way. The expressionistic sets and minimalist soundtrack feel transported in from the theatre, while the beautiful stark black-and-white photography and charismatic performances are pure cinema.
Washington is quietly powerful as his immorality grows. His entrance, a bold walk straight up to the camera out of the fog, establishes his movie star cred. His letter-perfect line readings, imbuing meaning and emotion into even the most intimidating of Shakespeare’s passages proves he was born to say these words.
McDormand plays Lady Macbeth as her husband’s equal. She captures her ambition, but tempers the performance with notes of desperation.
Also striking is legendary stage actress Kathryn Hunter. She plays all three of the prophetic weird sisters in a physically transformative way that sees her bend into shapes that look almost supernatural.
All are ably supported by an exemplary cast, including Gleeson, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, the Thane of Fife, Bertie Carvel as Macbeth ally Banquo and Harry Melling as Malcolm, the King Duncan’s eldest.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is accessible without ever playing down to the audience. Masterful filmmaking mixes and matches the text with compelling images and wonderful performances to create a new take on the Scottish Play that is both respectful and fearlessly fresh.
Go see it, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…”