Shakespeare, the prevailing category of work consisting of comedies and tragedies written in prose notoriously dense to modern ears, has been adapted, parodied and used as source material for countless entertainment properties over the years. His plays have been translated onto the stage and screen by nearly every thespian worth noting.
Despite this tremendous legend of work set in our lexicon of pop culture and literary significance, Joel Coen - one-half of the Coen Brothers, writer-director siblings known for cult classics like "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski" - is stepping out for his first-ever solo directing endeavor with a moody reimagining of one of the bard's most famous plays. An endeavor that, from the outside may seem futile, but in fact, is a surprisingly fresh, inspired take.
Fueled by its powerful performances and visceral stage-setting, "The Tragedy of Macbeth" succeeds in what it aims to do: telling the 400-year-old story with nuance, purpose and accessibility. A large chunk of its success rests with its two leads: Denzel Washington takes the titular character of Macbeth by his tormented horns, making him a fresh villain rather than a ragged protagonist dragged through too many similar iterations. And Frances McDormand, a thespian with a famously colorful persona off-screen as well as on, embodies everything Lady Macbeth was meant to be: namely powerful, ruthless, and, ultimately, insane.
It is the distinction that Macbeth, a once-decorated warrior, has been poisoned by ambition that drives Washington's performance. After learning of the witches' prophecy that he will be king, Macbeth becomes mad with the prospect. With the help of his conniving wife, they murder the reigning Scottish King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), though taking the throne is not all they expect. Diving headlong into paranoia and eventual insanity, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth continue to kill, further sending them down a rabbit hole of regret and despair.
The film is shot in black and white with copious amounts of fog and eerily romantic shots. It opens with a dizzying, entrancing introduction: a blank screen, slowing crawling with crows soaring through a hazy gloom. The crows are actually the three witches, one of whom takes human form (Kathryn Hunter), representing the others as she sets the mood for an ominous, dark and fatal tale that, as she divines, will bring only murder, backstabbing and blood-thirsty ladder-climbing.
Hunter, in all the glorious macabre that her distinct visage, draped raven costumes and raspy voice conjure, is a true delight. Her physicality and ability to contort her body as she recites Shakespeare's famous lines ("Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble") is an added, wholly welcome element to the characters she portrays.
Coen, along with production designer Stefan Dechant, created highly-contrasted sets that are simple, yet powerful tools in storytelling, bringing to mind films from the German Expressionist movement from the 1920s, which utilized shadow to build deep and emotional worlds on a sound stage. The result is a film that appears theatrical, without feeling like a recording of a live stage play. Macbeth's castle is austere in its simplicity: looming concrete walls and Gothic arches, but otherwise very little else for the viewer to consume, forcing our attention back to the actors and their incredible ability to emote the scenes.
Overall, "The Tragedy of Macbeth", written for the screen by Coen, is a straightforward rendition, maintaining all the well-worn lines one might expect. Coen lays the plot and scenes cleanly for our ease of viewing; even for those unfamiliar, unaccustomed or totally uninterested in Shakespeare's work, this production is made for everyone at every stage of their Shakespeare education.
With Washington, McDormand, Hunter and Coen behind the wheel, it's impossible not to be drawn into this scandalous tale of power, lust and greed, universal themes as pertinent today as they were four centuries ago.
"The Tragedy of Macbeth" is in select theaters now and will stream on Apple+ starting January 14.