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This 'Macbeth' adaptation distills Shakespeare's tragedy to its furious essence

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play Shakespeare's famously murderous couple in <em>The Tragedy of Macbeth.</em>
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Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play Shakespeare's famously murderous couple in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

In The Tragedy of Macbeth, director Joel Coen slashes away at Shakespeare's text, distilling every scene to its furious essence. At 105 minutes, this is a shorter Macbeth movie than most. The best-known lines are still there, of course — "Is this a dagger which I see before me" and all the rest. But the story of Macbeth's murderous rise to power is told with ruthless concentration.

The visuals are as stark and stripped down as the text. Coen and his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, evoke the look of older movies with a spectral black-and-white palette and a nearly square frame. Carter Burwell's score sets an ominous mood, complemented by what sounds like an executioner's drumbeats.

It's an immaculate piece of craftsmanship; the very look and feel of the movie cast a spell. At times you might be reminded of Orson Welles' 1948 Macbeth, and also of Akira Kurosawa's masterful 1957 retelling, Throne of Blood. Still, Coen's greatest influence here is Carl Theodor Dreyer, the austere Danish director who peered deep into his characters' tormented souls.

The tormented souls here are played by Denzel Washingtonand Frances McDormand, and it's fascinating to watch two of our most famous actors step out of this movie's expressionist shadows. Washington and McDormand are both in their 60s, somewhat older than most actors cast as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. And so there's an even greater sense of futility to their deadly plot against the king, Duncan, while he's a guest in their home. This Macbeth's reign of terror is destined to be short-lived.

Not much else has changed: Macbeth does the awful deed and seizes power, setting in motion a brutal chain of violence. At one point he turns to the three old witches who first prophesied that he would become king. All three witches are played by the English stage actor Kathryn Hunter, whose brilliant performance, with its spooky intonations and contortionist gestures, give this movie its darkest magic.

Coen's staging of Macbeth's sequence with the witches is ingenious: Rather than showing us the witches stirring their pot, he positions them up in the rafters like birds, looming over Macbeth, while the floor beneath his feet becomes a bubbling cauldron. Again and again, the director takes some of the most famous moments in the history of the theater and gives them a sense of abstraction. Macbeth's castle looks like something out of a surrealist painting, with its rows of identical archways and bold contrasts of light and dark.

As bewitching as the movie looks, the actors are never eclipsed by the production design. McDormand brings her usual steely poise to Lady Macbeth, which makes her unraveling all the more pitiable to behold. And Washington is remarkable: I had feared that this role might call forth a lot of stentorian bellowing, but until all hell breaks loose in the final act, the actor underplays beautifully. Washington plays Macbeth like an old man lost in a fog of his own bloodlust. He murmurs Shakespeare's language as though it really were welling up from someplace deep inside himself.

The rest of the superb ensemble combines actors from both stage and screen. Brendan Gleeson plays the doomed, unsuspecting Duncan with a genuinely kingly air, while Bertie Carvel brings the requisite gravity to the role of Banquo, the close friend and battle comrade whom Macbeth will betray. And I loved Corey Hawkins' youthful vitality in the role of Macduff, the rival who will help bring Macbeth's reign to its bloody end.

Like the many movies Joel Coen has made with his brother Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth has been directed to within an inch of its life, which leeches it of some emotional impact. Sometimes I wanted to linger longer in this dark world, to let its chill seep more fully into my bones. Still, there's no denying Coen has the right temperament for this doomiest of Shakespeare plays. Add it to the many stories he's told about men lost in tragedies of their own making.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.