Opening the 59th New York Film Festival, Joel Coen‘s The Tragedy of Macbeth is austere in its presentation, yet is brimming with intensity. One of William Shakespeare‘s most notable tragedies, Coen plays up the politically tragic aspect of the story. The corruptive nature of power, something well known to scholars of the play, is in full force here. While never a reinvention, and actually sporting somewhat of a retro look, it does still feel like a modern interpretation. Pegged for months as a potentially major Academy Award contender, it now arrives and fulfills some degree of that promise. NYFF was right to present this as one of their premiere titles, as it’s a major event for serious cinephiles.
The Tragedy of Macbeth has a lot going in its favor, but color me somewhat more reserved in my praise than most. I appreciate the hell out of this film, but was I entertained? That, I’m not sure of. The movie works, but it’s still Shakespeare, so if you find that to be a dry experience, this can only do so much. To that degree, if you’re often a fan, add a half star. If you’re a major detractor, take a half star away. As you’ll see below, I obviously opted to split the difference.
Yes, this is another take on Macbeth. So, we can be fairly brisk when it comes to plot. When the Scottish Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) encounters a trio of witches (Kathryn Hunter), they convince him of his regal providence. Now sure that his destiny is to become the next King of Scotland, he and his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) put a deadly plan into motion. He will be King, even if power must be seized violently.
Once King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) is out of the way, Macbeth is in charge. However, his murderous ascent to the thrown has created a paranoia in him. If the Lord and the Lady could craft this plan, couldn’t someone else? Thus begins a violent reign for the man, with his eventual destiny seemingly set in stone from Day One. It’s no secret to say that a showdown with Lord Macduff (Corey Hawkins) is on the horizon for Macbeth.
The duo of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are reliably great. Even if that’s no surprise, it’s still impressive how much they relish these roles. The former has a modern reading of his lines, but instead of distracting, it lends a distinct style to the performance. As for the latter, she just makes it so easy, spouting off tough dialogue as if it’s just in her bones. You almost have to remember to appreciate these masters at work, but masters they are. Supporting players here include Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins (impressive in this essential antagonistic role), Harry Melling, Kathryn Hunter, Ralph Ineson, Moses Ingram, Stephen Root, and more. Still, McDormand and especially Washington are the focus.
Joel Coen, working independently from his brother Ethan Coen, manages to showcase plenty of directorial flair. Chiefly, the stark black and white cinematography being employed by Coen and DP Bruno Delbonnel is truly something to behold. The whites especially pop here, allowing Delbonnel to give this adaptation a terrifically distinct look. Carter Burwell‘s score pairs well with the visuals, creating a specific mood. The same goes for production designer Stefan Dechant, who makes the sets a unique mix of film and theater. Imagine a German expressionist flick meeting the stage. Is it weird? A bit. Does it work? For sure. Coen’s direction is impeccable, speeding through the original text with purpose. His screenplay is more or less what you expect from this flick, but with a focus on allowing the style, as well as the cast, to shine. If there’s a flaw, it’s in The Tragedy of Macbeth being all style, with the changes in substance fairly subtle. It’s a small quibble here for me, but I do kind of wish it was more daring with the text.
Oscar-wise, The Tragedy of Macbeth is, at worst, a player for its leads and cinematography. Denzel Washington almost certainly will be nominated in Best Actor, while Frances McDormand seems a safe bet for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress, depending on where she’s campaigned. Likewise for Bruno Delbonnel in Best Cinematography. After that, it gets hazy. Joel Coen could score in Best Adapted Screenplay or Best Director, with Best Sound another option on the table for the flick, as well as the aforementioned Stefan Dechant in Best Production Design. If enough of those happen, a Best Picture nod could happen. I think that nom may prove elusive, just going by the content, but we shall see.
The Tragedy of Macbeth may not completely reinvent the Shakespeare story, but you’ll see the Bard’s words done differently than usual. Opening up NYFF in style, it’s about as easy a film to appreciate as there is. One may ponder who it’s actually made for, enjoyment-wise, but the movie undeniably works. The festival is now in high gear, so stay tuned for more, and look out for this adaptation later on this year!