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“The Tragedy of Macbeth”—“Blood will have blood.”

In perhaps one of the most famous plays of William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth, produced by Joel Coen and Frances McDormand, gives us another interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s shortest and bloodiest tragedies.

In the opening scene three witches make a horrific prediction as Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) approach: “Double, double, toil and trouble.”  They predict that Macbeth will become King of Scotland.  Although Macbeth has earned a reputation as a brave Scottish general who has just won a major battle against the Danes for King Duncan, he is not particularly expecting greater fame and power.  Until now.  The worm of greed and ambition starts to slither inside his skull.

We watch the witch (stage actress Katherine Hunter), in an almost impossible physiological contortion of her body, morphing into three witch/crows in watery reflection and shadow.  With avian-like appendages, the witches (three-in-one) leave the viewer to surmise that the actor’s body has been digitally altered….It hasn’t.  And neither has her haunting, nether-region voice reciting the famous lines: “Something wicked this way comes.”  This malevolent embodiment of death and evil is not a Halloween avatar of a coven of witches.  Rather, it is a surreal transformation literally chilling the viewer’s spine as much as the witch twists hers.

The two main characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), sell their souls, attempting to become affectless, guiltless sociopaths.  But they fail.  Part of the tragedy is they do not truly know themselves and descend into madness. 

Now consumed by ambition, supported (and mercilessly taunted) by his wife, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plot to assassinate the unsuspecting King Duncan and usurp the throne.  Forced to commit more murders—including Macduff’s wife and young son– to cover their regicide, Macbeth becomes tormented with hallucinations and guilt.   

Lady Macbeth, his partner in crime, nudges him with seemingly coldblooded murder in mind.  When Macbeth walks along an endless corridor in anguish, hallucinating about a suspended dagger in front of his eyes, Lady Macbeth attempts to reassure him, that all will proceed as planned.  But there is a sense of vertigo for the couple about to face the consequences of their actions. “What’s done cannot be undone.”  And there is no control over their madness.

Washington, who has mastered the ability to recite Shakespearean iambic pentameter lines as if they were conversational speech, keeps Macbeth’s tormented mind understated and therefore even more beguiling.   Frances McDormand, her delicately weathered face as expressive as ever, carries the weight of loving and witnessing her husband’s fraying mind relentlessly unraveling.  The two actors, ensconced in the cusp of the onset of seventy years of age, play their roles as one last chance at desperately grabbing glory and fame.   Inaction poses risk and they will not suffer it.  At least, they tell themselves they are in control–as the nagging dreams and ghosts of their past thump in the night.  Washington and McDormand are mesmerizing and their power over each other is palpable.

The visual connections between the stage and cinema become unmistakable in The Tragedy of Macbeth.   The sets are designed to maximize each shot framed. And the minimalist castle—not the medieval ornate one usually staged—lends a cutting and spatial dynamics of a hellscape, a prison of shadows and anguish, a  labyrinthine playground splashed with blood. 

The cinematic equivalent of a haiku, where a whole world is conveyed in a few syllables, The Tragedy of Macbeth is absolutely gorgeous to behold: as photographic moral and emotional images.

This rendition of Macbeth is a must for Shakespeare enthusiasts!

Availability: Apple+ streaming

Note:   The cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shot “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in color and then converted the film into black-and-white in order to use the RGB curves as a form of filtration.  “If you do that on a color sensor and transform it into black-and-white, the blue behaves like a filter that changes the skin tones and everything else, so we were able to expand the gray scale using all three curves.”  The mood and tone are pitch-perfect IMHO!


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