His hair is graying. His nerves are fraying. Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is a man quite literally running out of time — even before he meets those witches.
At 66, Washington is certainly at the older end of the spectrum of conceivable Macbeths. But it makes wonderful sense: In Joel Coen’s brilliantly imagined, brilliantly executed “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” we confront a man who knows in his bones — his aching bones — that the witches’ prophecy has given him his last chance to be what wants, no, deserves! King of Scotland.
For an actor of Washington’s unique skill set, not to mention facility with Shakespearean verse, Macbeth at any age would be right, frankly. But there’s something wonderful about the fact that it took this long, with all the experience and seasoning Washington now brings to bear. Still, this isn’t simply a matter of an actor meeting a role at the right time.
No matter how cursed or unlucky the so-called “Scottish play” is in theater lore, the stars seem to be aligned here. First, the movie stars: As Lady Macbeth, Frances McDormand is a perfect partner to Washington in age (64) and every other way, adding her signature clear-eyed urgency — and a few legendarily icy stares — to an often caricatured role. And boy, do these two look right together. Maybe it’s true, as somebody said, that the Macbeths have the only good marriage in Shakespeare — though the bar is not high. (Those teenagers Romeo and Juliet had a very short one.)
Completing the dream trio is director Coen (McDormand’s husband, in his first solo outing without brother Ethan), creating an austere and chilling yet gorgeous and stylish cinematic universe. It’s a world in black and white and gray, full of fog, shadows and mist — a chiaroscuro vision that seems half real, half fantasy.
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Designer Stefan Dechant’s set, built onto sound stages, is populated by Brutalist-type structures, high walls, long corridors and tall staircases and dirt paths outside. The key sensation is emptiness: There seems barely a prop around except for swords, doing their vicious work. It feels vaguely medieval but unconnected to a specific period — and thankfully not 2021, either. Most strikingly, Coen and superb cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel present a film literally wrapped in a box, in what they call an academy-ratio square frame.
Frances McDormand in a scene from “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” released December 2021. (A24 via AP)
As befits the bard’s briefest tragedy (albeit with a long list of murders most foul), Coen’s film clocks in well under two hours. We begin, as we should, with the three witches, and the ominous “fair is foul, and foul is fair” line – meaning all is not what it seems, an understatement of Shakespearean proportions. In a terrific creative decision, Coen gives us only one actor, the wonderful veteran Kathryn Hunter, as a shape-shifting contortionist who morphs at will into three identical figures.</…….