“A gorgeous film to look at.”
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (2022)
THE "IMDB" PREMISE:
"A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power."
OUR [TO THE POINT] REVIEW:
"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."
Wisps of fog and haze drape the scene as MacBeth (Denzel Washington) saunters into frame. He is the heroic general, servant of King Duncan of Scotland (Brendan Gleeson), having recently bested the enemy in combat. The dreary atmosphere gives way to three witches that bestow a fortuitous destiny on MacBeth: "He will one day assume the throne and become king himself." MacBeth is beside himself. The dream-like landscape makes it seem like he could be imagining it all. For all he knows, he very well could be.
This is the opening scene (or Act, if you please) of The Tragedy of MacBeth. Based on Shakespeare’s play, this film is written and directed by Joel Coen. This is his first time directing without his brother and collaborator, Ethan. With a stark tone, Coen delivers stunning visuals here in a controlled confidence.
MacBeth is indeed a tragedy. It is a cautionary tale about poisonous ambition. MacBeth and his wife (Frances McDormand) are seized by the lust of power and deviled by the guilt they feel after achieving it. The original play may or may not have graced your English class syllabus. We read "Romeo and Juliet" and "Othello" in my high school, and I studied "The Merchant of Venice" in college. Their common denominator was tragic ends. In that regard, MacBeth delivers the same goods here.
The quickest way through the plot goes like this: After hearing the prophecy from the three witches (played with meticulous creepy charm by Kathryn Hunt), MacBeth sends word to his wife of the news. The pair then make their own luck to bring this destiny to fruition. Their machinations involve murder, deceit, and madness. In the end, MacBeth betrays virtually everyone, including himself.
But the plot is nowhere near as interesting as how Washington and company pull us through it. Every performer lends their full commitment. McDormand shines as Lady MacBeth. Alex Hassell and Harry Melling are the best they’ve ever been. When they hand out accolades for supporting actors this award season, Corey Hawkins’ turn as MacDuff should be at the top of the heap. Of course, the mighty Denzel commands as MacBeth. He is neither over-the-top nor casually subtle. He exhausts the spectrum of human emotion effortlessly, carrying this film as if he were carrying a grain of rice. This is undoubtedly attributable to his love and respect for Shakespeare's work, having been involved in many of the author’s productions during his career.
Quite simply, the man was born to read the words that Shakespeare wrote.
This film is a stripped down and surreal recitation. While other productions might treat Shakespeare’s material as an opportunity to fatigue the costume and make-up department, this film runs the other way. It is cold and bleak. It is shot in beautiful black and white. It is cleverly set up to appear as a meld of both film and theater.
This is a gorgeous film to look at.
Soliloquies and monologues are filmed in tight frames. The characters fill the spaces. The background, the sets, the stage are ostensibly devoid of any distraction. Coen has accomplished a great task by doing so much with so little. There are no giant set pieces, it was all shot on a soundstage. CGI and other modern techniques are mostly absent; the film relies on practical effects. There is some CGI but it is purposeful and sparse. The sequences of MacBeth hallucinating are haunting and powerful, but not offensive and ostentatiously heady.
Every piece of this production compliments the other. The sound design has reverberating knocking and slamming, this draws our eyes to the brilliant cinematography as beams of light trace out pathways and positions. These direct us back to the characters as they allow the words of a 400-year-old play to flow like an exquisite oil. The delivery of the old English dialogue will fall smartly on even the most amateur ears.
The Tragedy of Macbeth flows stiffly yet loosely, like a dream you can touch. And that’s the rub. Could it all have been just a dream for MacBeth? Did he get punched by destiny or his own madness? Does the pursuit of blind ambition truly conquer us in the end? For MacBeth, it does. His story is indeed a tragedy. Thankfully, this film is not.