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The Tragedy of Macbeth movie review: Denzel Washington is a masterclass in one of the finest films of the year

The Tragedy of Macbeth movie review: In a cast of impeccable quality, Denzel Washington is a triumph. The actor requires no trappings to be regal and is a masterclass.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi |
Updated: January 14, 2022 4:21:32 pm
The Tragedy of Macbeth review Denzel WashingtonThe Tragedy of Macbeth has been shot in black and white. (Photo: Apple TV)

The Tragedy of Macbeth movie cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins
The Tragedy of Macbeth movie director: Joel Coen
The Tragedy of Macbeth movie rating: 5 stars

Power is a bleak landscape, deriving its oxygen from blood, ambition and fears – oh, so many fears. This Shakespeare play would seem an unusual choice for Joel Coen, one half of the Coen brothers. However, both adapting it for the screen and directing it, Joel Coen tells this ultimate tale of power and its price for what it is — all that sound and fury signifying nothing.

His Macbeth is old and beaten, but also torn and driven. As the seed of an idea is implanted in him, by a prophecy that speaks to him out of the foggy, barren land that is his home, it digs deeper and deeper, clawing at things buried inside Macbeth and bearing fruits he first can’t bear and then can’t resist.

Coen’s Lady Macbeth is bold and ambitious, clear and resolute. When the seed of the same idea is implanted in her, she clutches at it, nurtures it, grooms it, and ensures it doesn’t die, only to pluck fruits she first relishes and then can’t bear.
The two main casts, portrayed by Washington and McDormand, find their act of murder to usurp the throne bind them together and then rend them apart. The Tragedy of Macbeth lays bare the lure of temptation, the lies we tell ourselves to fall for it, the cost we are willing to pay for our darkest fantasies, the shadows that keep us awake at night, and the fears that breed more fears.

Shot in black and white (cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), the film is a marvel of chiaroscuro, its light and dark coexisting and contrasting, much like its main characters. (It is a tragedy then that the film comes to us via Apple TV and not the big screen.) Jason T Clark’s art direction imagines this royal world as a cold, featureless place of towering pillars, endless corridors and stone-cold walls – where, yet, no secrets stay hidden. That endless knocking Macbeth hears could be anything, from a death knell to a bare tree knocking against a window. Macbeth’s home is one with the terrain of Scotland that he has committed the ultimate sin to conquer, offering no rewards for the victor. As Macbeth says, what he has murdered is even the innocent sleep.

And then there are the witches, all three played by the jaw-dropping Hunter. She appears out of nowhere, a gnome covered in black, writhing in endless sand, twisting her body here and there, difficult to conjure and impossible to forget. The only life in this land apart from the weary men in constant battles walking it are ravens, circling, screeching above, watching and narrowing in. The witches, are they one or two or three, are they tricks of the mind, or imaginations of one’s deepest desires, or foreteller of one’s terrors — you will never know.

McDormand (also Coen’s wife who regularly features in his films) is cold and scornful at first, as the wife who must drive her husband on to what she sees as his destiny — “wouldst not play foul but wouldst wrongly win”, she whispers. As the aftermath dawns, her strength deserts her almost as completely as it drove her, leaving both her body and mind broken.

However, in a cast of impeccable quality, it’s Washington who is a triumph. The actor who requires no trappings to be regal is a masterclass, almost frustratingly silhouette-like in the beginning, indiscernible from the shadows where he hides from his deeds — “false face must hide what the false heart doth know” — till the fires of hell burning him consume him. He bursts forth then in their full glare: as a man in denial of both time and tide.

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