Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ conjures wicked triumph

photo of Denzel Washington
Apple Original Film & A24/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Shakespearean tragedy doesn’t require violent storms or the cloak of nightfall. Romeo and Juliet wade through Italian noontides and dawn’s soft clarity; sunlight shimmers over Antony and Cleopatra’s kingdoms of clay. All tragic characters meet the same fate, but there’s something sinister haunting Scotland in “Macbeth.” In the play’s opening act, the witches croon, “Something wicked this way comes,” but Joel Coen’s film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” suggests otherwise. The thing is not coming — it’s already here.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” lifting the full title of Shakespeare’s play, chronicles the demise of Scottish general Macbeth, played by a titanic Denzel Washington. In a haunting prophecy, three witches tell Macbeth that he will become Thane of Cawdor and eventually king of Scotland. When the first prophecy comes true, Macbeth and the cunning Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) assassinate King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), and the former is appointed king as paranoia and distrust contaminate the air.

Shot in monochrome, Coen’s Scotland is austere. The rich poetry is laden with images of condensation, evaporation, pollution and rot. Landscape and language coalesce in exquisite, bitter metaphors that unspool alongside the acidic expansion of power and ambition. The environment appears spacious yet barren, as if emptied of possibility. Scotland’s future is as fruitless as Macbeth’s crown.

The land is abstracted and leached of color, “the fog and filthy air” curdled and thick enough to choke. The vast sky is the color of bone, a cool and unwelcoming slate that hovers over people who wear their hard shadows like masks and hide in their own sharp silhouettes. Interior settings — the bedrooms, the banquet halls — crackle with unhomeliness, uncannily sparse and bleakly lit.

The film’s severe, practically sterile, settings compel the actors to deliver their best. Washington sets the language ablaze, exuding mature authority that makes Macbeth effortlessly captivating. He isn’t swept up in the Scottish king’s greatest hits, keeping the prose only purple enough to bruise. His carnal eloquence refreshes “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and firstly grounds the story’s immortality in Macbeth’s harrowing struggle before Shakespeare’s exalted language. His talent smolders in Coen’s grave world, where there’s no furniture to collapse upon or goblets of wine to guzzle — there’s nothing to do but act.

Natural order buckles as sinister supernatural beings spill into the corporeal world. As the three witches, Kathryn Hunter executes bone-chilling excellence lurking in Scotland’s polluted mist. Her grotesque performance unlatches the horrors of imagination and haunts the film like black bile threatening to bubble.

Duncan’s death ripples like a toxin, poisoning Macbeth’s mind and the country he killed to rule. As Lady Macbeth, McDormand burns brightest in Washington’s orbit. Her stern countenance and grizzled performance generate the kind of kinetic power demanded to move a character as mighty as Washington’s Macbeth. Her transformation across the later acts loses its grit, a flaw only noticeable due to the film’s otherwise unflappable excellence.

In drawing his sword, Macbeth drops a fatal anchor, and “The Tragedy of Macbeth” captures the ruthless atmosphere with reverence for the forms of drama and cinema. Between betrayal and blood-soaked secrets, no one can be trusted — not even Ross, a Scottish nobleman played by Alex Hassell, who’s much busier and slipperier than audiences may remember. Brimming with talent, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a film of quiet intoxication. The story of clean hands, stained hearts and a rotting mind is as unforgettable as Lady Macbeth’s blasphemous spot.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is playing in select theaters and available on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.

Maya Thompson is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].