Mr. Kilinski, my senior year English teacher, would be pleased that I remembered every stanza and phrase from Macbeth that he required his pupils to memorize. I found myself lip-syncing under my disguise while Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and others labored through the Bard’s verses as adapted by director Joel Coen. I performed the greatest hits as well as lines I had no idea I knew. Remember, I learned these words 35 years ago, but they were as fresh in my mind as if I’d memorized them that morning. The Scottish Play has a special place in my heart because it forced me to change my opinion of William Shakespeare completely. I was done with this guy and his fancy writing about topics that put my adolescent self to sleep after my freshman year run-in with Romeo and Juliet and my sophomore year’s Julius Caesar.
However, I had to reconsider after reading Macbeth. I couldn’t figure out why it spoke to me so strongly that it inspired me to read more Shakespeare at the time. But, as a grown-up, I got it. As a teen, I was a budding noirista, so this play reminded me of a film noir. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” has a noirish feel to it. Bruno Delbonnel shot it in silvery, at times gothic black and white, with a moody score by the great Carter Burwell, and it takes place on incredible (and obviously fake) sets designed by Stefan Dechant. It also has more fog than San Francisco, which has served as the setting for many great noir films. This makes sense, given that Coen and his brother Ethan explored neo-genre noir’s neighborhood more traditionally in their 2001 film “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Their debut, “Blood Simple,” could also be classified as neo-noir.
Like those films, this one star McDormand as Lady Macbeth, a shady lady. She is the Thane of Glamis to Washington’s Macbeth. As the casting suggests, this couple is older than the one envisioned by Shakespeare, which alters one’s perception of their motivations. Young ambition has given way to something else; perhaps the couple is too aware of all the yesterdays that “lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” McDormand stated at the Q&A following the free IMAX screening of this film that she intended to portray the Macbeths as a couple who chose not to have children early on and were happy with their decision. This element heightens the heartlessness and brutality of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) son’s murder, which Coen depicts with restraint but not fear.
All spoiler warnings have expired since The Scottish Play was originally performed 415 years ago, whose plot is totally recognizable. On his journey back from combat, Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and the Thane of Glamis meet three witches (all played by Broadway veteran Kathryn Hunter). They predict that Macbeth will become King of Scotland in the future. But first, he must ascend to the position of Thane of Cawdor. When that aspect of the prophecy comes true, Macbeth believes these medieval Miss Cleos were right. Lady Macbeth prods him to act, even though he believes he will be crowned by accident. By the final curtain, the stage will be so classic as other Shakespeare’s tragedies, covered by dead bodies, each of whom will have yelled out “I am killed!” or “I am dead!” before passing away. Because you can see how dead the bodies get on the screen, Coen keeps that feature out of the film.
The assassination of King Duncan is particularly brutal. It’s framed so tightly that we feel the closeness of how close one must be to stab another, and Washington and Brendan Gleeson portray it as a macabre dance. It’s almost sexual in nature. In their other scenes, both performers exude a regal air, while Washington’s is bolstered by his distinctive Den-ZELLL swagger. In some of his remarks, he even makes the Denzel vocal tic, the “huh” that he’s famous for, making me thrilled enough to jump out of my skin with delight. Every line and every moment feel like Gleeson is conversing with the ghosts of the renowned actors who frequented that hallowed London stage.
The rest of the ensemble is well-cast and brings their own unique talents to their roles. As Porter, Stephen Root almost walks away with the picture. As Ross, Alex Hassel had more to do than I remembered. There’s also a terrific sequence with an elderly man performed by an actor I won’t name. (When he appears, take a close look). McDormand, on the other hand, retains her normal icy reserve, which I don’t believe she really sheds once we reach the “out, damned spot” moment. I experienced a similar issue with the moment at the banquet where Washington is haunted by a familiar phantom. Both appear to be far too self-assured to be in the grip of momentary insanity.
The tone of this “Macbeth” is just as important as the verse. The images recognize this, drawing us into the action as though we were on stage. But Kathryn Hunter’s revelatory performance as the Witches is where the evocation of atmosphere is most obvious. Her appearance and speech had an otherworldly quality to them, as if she came from a dark place Macbeth should be afraid of. Her work is so unforgettable that it will take you a long time to disremember it. The restricted staging of Macbeth’s final battle, as well as Coen’s representation of her cauldron steaming, are highlights. Hawkins holds his own against Denzel Washington’s colossus, and their swordplay is quick and vicious.
Be cautious: high school pupils who choose to watch movies rather than read the play will continue to fail English class. If chance would have you pass, it would do so without making a fuss. So, kiddies, read the play! Mr. Kilinski, your very own, will be grateful.
Now playing in select theaters and available on Apple TV+ on January 14.