Denzel Washington Makes Shakespeare Scary in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

Joel Coen directs Washington and Frances McDormand in this Shakespeare adaptation opening the New York Film Festival.

the tragedy of macbeth
A24
A24

From the very first frame of Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth, the A24 and Apple TV+ production which opened the 2021 New York Film Festival Friday night, there is a sense that this production is deeply haunted. Macbeth has always been the most mystical of Shakespeare's tragedies, but Coen and his cast, led by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, capitalize on the eeriness in the text by mashing up theatrical and cinematic language.

Though their screen time is minimal compared to the Lord and Lady who spread their terror and tyranny through Scotland, it's the witches that set the tone for this Macbeth, which hits theaters on Christmas. All three are played by one woman, the British stage actress Kathryn Hunter. She's a literal contortionist, who spins her arms about her as if they are detached from her body, seeming as if she crawled out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In moments, she is talking to herself; in others, her reflections are mirrored in water. Occasionally, she is duplicated on screen. It's an uncanny sensation that puts you ill at ease. From the moment you first hear her voice, she has cursed the screen, delivering a sensation that is difficult to shake.

Coen, who turned his eye to the play on the urging of his wife McDormand, also a producer, has fabricated an entire universe for this saga to unravel. The bloody battlefields of the UK have been transported to a soundstage where stark shadows rule. The set is deliberately a set, and the falseness of the leaves and tree branches that flutter in and out of frame are just beyond reality.

The text is Shakespeare's Macbeth, albeit heavily abridged. (For this reason, the film will be a resource in English classes for years and years to come.) Denzel Washington, giving yet another one of his titan performances, is the Thane of Glamis, who upon returning from battle stumbles upon the weird sisters who tell him he shall be king. He tells this prophecy to his wife (McDormand), who encourages him to hurry along the process, setting him down a path of murderous ascension.

Washington and McDormand are older than the actors who typically play their parts. (For comparison's sake, Saoirse Ronan is about to do Lady Macbeth on stage.) And yet neither of these Oscar winners try to defy their age. Unlike some who play the Macbeths as lustful lovers, these two see their pair as comrades who are at ease with one another. That initial spark of desire may have passed, but they have a bone-deep knowledge of each other's whims. McDormand's Lady Macbeth is steely and funny, a wonderful actress who knows she is thus.

Washington is an especially weary Macbeth with heavy bags under his eyes. In early scenes, his hesitancy translates to exhaustion. He wants all that he is promised, but he is conscious of the toll it might take on him. He grows mad, but also tired. This is not a whippersnapper who needs sleep, it is an aging man who feels the weight of his deeds in his bones.

Coen and McDormand have assembled a dynamite company of players that all make meals out of their scenes. Stephen Root is hysterically clownish in his comic relief as the Porter. In the Heights standout Corey Hawkins is a towering, vengeful Macduff, while The Queen's Gambit's Moses Ingram adds a devastating humor to her demise as Lady Macduff. Washington and McDormand yield the spotlight to this parade of fine actors, among them Bertie Carvel as Banquo, Harry Melling as Malcolm, and Brendan Gleeson as Duncan.

For as great as the performances are, it's how they are aligned with the direction and staging that make The Tragedy of Macbeth a thoroughly exhilarating watch. Coen approaches the material with a dash of German Expressionism, and a dose of the experimental theater techniques that McDormand has pioneered with the Wooster Group. Captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's unflinching lens in a tight Academy ratio, the images complement the crisp delivery of Shakespeare's words.

Doom seeps through every frame of the film. It's there in Washington's eyes, and Hunter's chapped lips issuing curses. Like the knocking Macbeth hears, it's an adaptation that will beguile and plague you.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.