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Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

When The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s first feature as a solo director, opens in theaters on Christmas Day before Apple begins streaming it in mid-January, it will be riding a wave of raves. “Other fine films have, of course, been made from this material,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “but I have a feeling that Coen’s film will end up being judged equal or superior to any of them. It’s truly one for the ages.”

Ahead of last Friday’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. spoke with Coen and his wife, Frances McDormand, who plays Lady Macbeth, “a role she was born to play,” as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw puts it. Fleming naturally asked Coen about working for the first time without his brother, and Coen replied that, yes, of course, “there were plenty of times when I missed Ethan.” At the same time, beginning with 1984’s Blood Simple, they have made eighteen features together, and “you know, we’re getting on.” Coen will turn sixty-seven in November. “It seems more natural than unnatural that there would be a point where you kind of go, I’ll do this and you’ll do that,” says Coen. “It doesn’t mean we’ll never work together again, it just means that here we’re not.”

But Coen has reunited with a few crucial crew members, such as cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) and production designer Stefan Dechant (True Grit), for his adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s best-known works. “The play is the play, and Coen never wavers from that directive,” writes Vikram Murthi at the A.V. Club. Rather than cut characters or entire scenes, Coen has opted for surgical cuts, and his “trims to the text are quite seamless, tightening the pace without unduly sacrificing the verse,” notes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. At TheWrap, Robert Abele finds that Coen has turned Macbeth into “a taut feast of shadowy, claustrophobic noir, as if it had been punched out on an Underwood by a bitter, hard-drinking screenwriter in a smoky studio office and handed to a European émigré to visualize like a nightmare.”

For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, this Macbeth is “as cold and weird and lucid as a waking dream, shot in a pristine, magnesium-bright monochrome, and situated on stark, angular sets that melt into abstraction as they approach the edges of the near-square screen. Shadows cast by bony boughs menacingly finger the walls; lancet windows yawn like open coffins.” At IndieWire, David Ehrlich argues that “the most powerful thing this adaptation does to revitalize its 400-year-old text is position Shakespeare as a prime influence on the Coen brothers, and Macbeth in particular as a lyrical prototype for the fatalism they’ve brought into the modern world. After all, what Coen movie couldn’t be summed up by the Thane’s lament that life ‘is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing?’”

“You can, if you choose, view the character of Macbeth as a man whose ambition turns him into a monster,” suggests Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “but Denzel Washington, with close-cropped silver-flecked hair that seems to merge with the film’s design, plays him as an outwardly gregarious corporate weasel, all too relatable in a slightly crestfallen middle-aged way.” Washington “dials himself down, finding a softer, more furtive spirit in the inner worm of Macbeth’s malevolence.” At the Daily Beast, Nick Schager detects “shades of Washington’s Training Day monster in his performance, but also a wellspring of conflicted determination, self-deception, fury, and despair, all of which are so timeless, so relatable, and so explosive that the film develops a dynamic friction between its roiling emotions and Stefan Dechant’s austere production design.”

Coen’s “adeptness at picking the perfect supporting actor for the smallest role is fully evident,” notes Keith Uhlich in Slant. Bertie Carvel “shines as Banquo,” finds Vikram Murthi, and Corey Hawkins “infuses Macduff with honest anguish as well as righteous, urgent wrath. And Stephen Root briefly steals the film out from under a most impressive cast in his one scene as the Porter, delivering his dialogue at rapid speed and lending the film some outsized, much-needed levity. His performance feels like a cameo from a Coens comedy of yore.” For David Ehrlich, “the MVP reveals herself early and with unforgettable force. Known abroad for her shapeshifting physicality, British actor and theater director Kathryn Hunter is astounding as the witches—all three of them, in addition to a fourth part later on—who incept Macbeth with the idea that will eventually undo him.”

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