It has witches, a ghost, and “something wicked this way comes.” “The Scottish Play” is not exactly horror, but it was probably as close as you could get in Elizabethan times. This still is not exactly a “Horror Macbeth,” but the Thane exists in a landscape not unlike that roamed by the Knight in The Seventh Seal, residing in a castle worthy of vintage German expressionism. Joel (without Ethan) Coen mines considerable fresh inspiration from Shakespeare in his visually striking adaption of The Tragedy of Macbeth, which starts streaming Friday on Apple TV+.
It’s Macbeth, so you should know the story by now. This time around the Thane and Lady Macbeth are maybe a little older and a little more jaded, but the story remains the same (and wisely so). However, the variations are particularly interesting this time around, especially the three witches. In fact, it might just be one witch, with three fractured personas or maybe she is a demonic spirit. The way Coen presents her and Kathryn Hunter plays her/them leaves her true nature open to interpretation, but whatever she might be, she is profoundly sinister.
In contrast, Coen largely de-emphasizes the ghost, rendering it a fleeting illusion of Macbeth’s fevered mind. Of course, there are plenty of killings that Coen stages with visceral intimacy. There is nothing more personal than betrayal and murder, which Coen rubs Macbeth’s nose in—and immerses the viewer. However, what really distinguishes the film is the starkly stylized set design that suggests vintage 1930s Universal gothic monster films, by way of M.C. Escher. This film looks amazing, in a cold, severe, drafty, imposing kind of way. Living in Macbeth’s castle is almost unimaginable, but it makes for great cinema.
Running an hour and forty-five minutes, Coen’s Macbeth is about equal in length to Orson Welle’s adaption, and a bit shorter than the Michael Fassbender Macbeth, and considerably briefer than Polanski’s take. It is briskly paced, but the Thane’s transition from loyal vassal to murderous sociopath is more noticeably abrupt. Of course, viewers know he is Macbeth, so they should be able to fill in the gaps themselves.
Denzel Washington fulfills our expectations in the notorious role and even manages to surprise with the degree to which his Macbeth is tormented by his own crimes. It is a massively moody and angsty performance, but also a very legitimate spin on the character that we do not often see. In contrast, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth lives up to her reputation and then some.
Joel Coen’s vision of Macbeth might not be the best film version ever, but it has some pretty impressive competition for the title. The point is he found ways to make the familiar drama feel fresh and potent. Frankly, new film adaptations of Shakespearean ought to be regularly produced, because these dramas are meant to be re-staged and re-interpreted. Coen’s film perfectly illustrates the point. It looks incredible, with all kinds of credit due to Bruno Delbonnel’s arresting black-and-white cinematography and features some of the best screen thesps in the business stretching themselves, for profitable returns. Very highly recommended, The Tragedy of Macbeth starts streaming Friday (1/14) on Apple TV+.