HAIL TO THE KING
ANOTHER Macbeth adaptation? Yes, another Macbeth adaptation.
But this time, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand at the helm as Lord and Lady Macbeth, with images shot in an unnervingly crisp black and white that only grows more ominous for the dashes of fire and fog creeping into the proceedings. The script — furnished by Joel Coen, who is making his debut here as a solo director — has had its screws tightened just so, such that the delirious inner dramas of Shakespeare’s original play feel unmoored from anything like reality, playing out with a ferocity that verges into outright spookiness. His is a Macbeth in which the swarthy tragic hero (Washington, predictably a joy to watch) gets to show off his physical prowess. The iconic trio of witches get played by one actor: the spindly, discomfiting Kathryn Hunter, whose contorted performance is more overwhelming than any number of action movies’ fearsome special effects.
The Tragedy of Macbeth has the unmistakable feel of a thriller: taut, nimble, and quick. The play, with all its conspiracy and witchery, warring egos and violent turns, already lends itself to this kind of treatment. But Coen, hardly a director to sit on his hands, has given us a play about a Scotland burnished with a creeping sense of mystery. The movie was filmed entirely on a soundstage, and you can tell: The vast landscapes of Scotland are not present here, only a hemmed-in, horizonless feeling, with the world of Macbeth’s home rendered sharply, all angularly contrived space and shadow and hard edges, hallmarks of German Expressionism that make for a nice backdrop here. Does the movie have much to say about the material? Less, maybe, than you’d hope from a mind as rich and reflexive as that of a Coen brother. But when the flames erupt, when the swords are drawn, when Washington’s line readings begin to shred the text apart, the movie — and its contrivances — proves their worth.