Shakespeare. The name alone can be intimidating when you remember your high school English class and a stack of Cliffs or SparkNotes. The language, apparently obsolete, can put many to sleep.
But thanks to the vision of Joel Cohen, who reimagines the classic tale of Macbeth, Shakespeare comes to life in striking shades of black, white and gray to mirror the overall tone of Lady Macbeth and her power-seeking husband, played by Frances McDorman. and Denzel Washington, respectively.
Whether you know the story or not, The Tragedy of Macbeth will seep through your veins as you watch the murderous plot unfold, dragging our characters deeper and deeper into a soulless abyss. It’s a convoluted story with tangled webs of lies and deception that form a complex story to digest long after the credits roll.
Bringing a story like this to life to make it gripping, entertaining, and understandable requires careful attention to every aspect of the making, and Cohen nails it every step of the way. First, the cast.
Washington is stepping up its skills to portray the conniving and coveted general who aspires to rule the country. A little stiff at first, Washington rediscovers the heart and soul of Macbeth as his character plunges into his sordid deeds.
Passion boils beneath the surface of Macbeth as he recounts his own misdeeds, then grapples with the psychological consequences. Countering her charged performance is yet another Oscar-worthy performance from McDormand as Lady Macbeth. She finds the shrewd and manipulative ability to pull strings in Macbeth like a puppeteer, never questioning the moral integrity of it all.
McDormand and Washington are magical together, balancing Shakespeare’s intentions in the story, as the entire cast exudes an intensity of understanding in their performances. Cohen leaves no one out as he includes Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), the tragic and vengeful Macduff (Corey Hawkins) and the innocent victim, Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram).
But it’s Kathryn Hunters’ haunting performance as the witches that will send shivers down your spine. She contorts and transforms into multiple versions of a wizarding self and crows perched above with her deep low voice warning Macbeth of what is to come. It’s scary and memorable.
Although the language is sometimes difficult to understand, the passion behind the character deliveries makes it very clear what is going on. And it’s quite interesting to hear phrases used today that go back maybe centuries.
Hearing Hunters Witch recite Double, double toil and trouble, will ring in your mind for days. You will also recognize that something nasty happens this way, just is foul and foul is right, and only one hit, among many others.
Directing this ensemble cast is key to recreating Shakespeare, and Cohen boldly scales back the ensemble. It focuses on what is important and leaves out superfluous aspects that would otherwise clutter the whole and our understanding.
Sometimes it’s claustrophobic, exactly how Macbeth feels, as the camera closes in and limits our field of vision. Black-and-white austerity punctuates the formidable future, and the square aspect ratio focuses on what’s important for us to see.
Shakespeare’s tales are timeless, and Cohen finds a way to tell Macbeth in a unique and powerful way. Incredible attention to all aspects of filmmaking, from scriptwriting and set design to directing and acting, The Tragedy of Macbeth will renew your interest in one of the masters of storytelling.
Reel Talk rating: 4 stars
Pamela Powell is a film critic located in Bourbonnais and a member of the CFCA, the CCA, and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Writing reviews for 10 years, Pamela can also be found on WCIA TV in Champaign. She can be contacted at [email protected]
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