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.
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.
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.
Despite a few judicious cuts, the language is preserved and the story is, of course, the same: After the witches prophesize that Macbeth will become king, he decides, propelled by the tough-love urgings of his wife (“When you durst do it, THEN you were a man”) to hasten the process by murdering much-loved King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson, excellent).
Washington’s Macbeth, who often speaks in a soft voice — even a whisper — is racked with indecision beforehand. But what if we fail, he asks. “We fail?” his wife replies, but in McDormand’s reading, it’s essentially, “Look at us, what the heck do we have to lose?” (Don’t answer that, folks.)
And so the bloody cycle begins. This “Macbeth” is, as always, about politics, power, and the corrosive effects of ambition. It is not, however, about sociopaths. It feels more about mediocrity — and the desperation that brings — than monstrosity.
There’s much acting talent here beyond the leads. Corey Hawkins, a standout in pretty much anything he does, is a dashing presence as noble Macduff, who has the distinction of killing Macbeth (this swordfight doesn’t disappoint) once he apprises him that he was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb — very bad news if you’re Macbeth. As Macduff’s doomed wife, Moses Ingram makes much of her one scene.
Washington, who’s played Shakespeare onstage numerous times ( and onscreen in 1993 ) recently said that it’s “where I started, and where I want to finish.” As a student at Fordham University, he played Othello, a role he prepared for by listening to recordings of Laurence Olivier in the library.
When he speaks of finishing, one hopes he isn’t referring to anytime soon. After all, King Lear awaits – right, Mr. Washington?
But as for his Macbeth, it’s McDormand who perhaps said it best when asked recently about casting the role. “You don’t make lists for a generation’s Macbeth,” she said. “One is born, and then they play it.”
Sounds about right.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” an A24/Apple release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for violence.” Running time: 105 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 not permitted without a parent or adult guardian.