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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Review: Joel Coen’s take on Shakespeare is one of the year’s most visually astounding movies

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play scheming lovers in the latest big-screen adaptation of a classic story, and one of its most stark renditions.

There seems to be no end to them, the fields of stars and inner-castle crevices stretching above and through infinite darkness. If Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” were the filmmaker trying his hand at stagecraft, the limits of a theater’s confined space might have cut his take on Shakespeare’s timeless story down to size.

But “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a movie, its stage a flat portal where limits are a bit less strict and the variable of size a bit more freeing. And so the stars here seem to glitter to some cosmic nether region, stairs descend all the way to hell, shadows stand ready to leap out at any moment. Such defining marks are the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel and production design of Stefan Dechant on this iteration of an endlessly adaptable tragedy that A24 and Apple Films, the project’s co-distributors, might as well name Coen’s collaborators co-directors.

While they’re at it, they should extend the directing credit to the entire sound department, without whom Denzel Washington’s whispered monologues wouldn’t sound as elegant as his insanity-inflected roars, and without whom tree limbs knocking on the window wouldn’t be mistaken for armies pounding away at the mind’s gates as Washington’s murderous king spirals into madness. Those are just two elements of a fanged soundscape that creates a poetry of doom all its own, giving voice to a movie whose craft is commanding enough that you’d do well to surrender to it early if you happen to watch “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in a theater.

And you should. Coen’s movie is a black-and-white geometric spectacle, a display of expressionistic light and shadow conveyed with such masterful precision that its case is best made in the dark. The moment the boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio suddenly becomes a peephole and then a natural spotlight is one of the most formally thrilling things to be seen in a cinema this year. It also makes it all the more curious that Coen decided to retain Shakespeare’s verse in what appears to be its totality, emphasizing “The Tragedy of Macbeth” as a movie that’s both literal and mystical, staid and stately, a practical production imbued with classical flair. Some shots feel stolen from the medieval romance Wes Anderson never made, others still resembling Ingmar Bergman’s ambiguous realms.

Still, there are periods during the monologues – and more than a few of them – where one wonders what this film is accomplishing that a stage production wouldn’t. We can perhaps thank the words’ longevity for that; the name Shakespeare invokes a scholarly lens, and if Coen has accomplished one thing with the pure mood of his take, it’s discovering a deliciously eerie new vehicle for one of the poet’s most lasting works. Delivered against the crafted grandeur at hand, this “Macbeth” toes the line between contrast and contradiction, turning the endeavor into a high-wire act and occasionally tipping onto one side or the other.

The film – which releases in San Antonio theaters on New Year’s Eve before landing on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14 – arrives a little over a year after New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott crowned Washington the best actor of the century so far, calling him “a screen titan who is also a subtle and sensitive craftsman.” Suffice to say, “The Tragedy of Macbeth'' makes for a fine showcase of both sides. Frances McDormand stars and schemes alongside him as Lady Macbeth, and while these performances aren’t likely to be invoked in discussions about their very best roles, that has less to do with their ability than with Coen knowing full well his sharpest asset is Shakespeare’s words. So Washington and McDormand are sometimes mannered, but also never less than grand as the figures of self-destruction we know they are and will become. And because this is a movie that loves the close-up, it’s a uniquely cinematic touch that these characters sometimes address us while addressing us—looking right at the camera, they draw the viewer into their cataclysm of guilt and paranoia.

What are we to make of this particular “Macbeth” retelling in 2021, other than a reminder of the glorious results harmony among craftspeople can conjure? For many, that may be justification enough, and when you watch “The Tragedy of Macbeth” you may very well count yourself one of them. It’s also not a bad thing that it’s not strictly tied down to the broad artistic imperatives of the day, which is to say it isn’t attempting to right any historical wrongs a la Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” or molding itself to representational leaps like David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” did. Rather, the soundstage sets and Grimm’s-Fairy-Tales feel of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” gives it a welcome thematic looseness sure to make some in the audience wonder what decade it was made in—at least until Washington strolls in, his beard looking like steel wool ready to catch fire in the grey moonlight.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a translation that makes up for in passion what it lacks in urgency, a testament to how the contributions of a committed group can bring impressive new dialect to Shakespeare’s enduring words. In that regard, the actress Kathryn Hunter, playing the prophetic Three Witches who sets Macbeth on his bloodstained path, is a supremely stark presence. A veteran actress of the stage perhaps best known to movie fans for a (very) brief but singular appearance in the fifth “Harry Potter” film, Hunter gives the tragedy a beguiling spark, bending the arc of prophecy towards an apocalyptic place with just her smoke-choked rasp of a voice. She’s the movie’s best practical effect. She may be the movies’ best practical effect.

"The Tragedy of Macbeth" is rated R for violence. It opens in San Antonio theaters Friday. 

Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel

Directed by Joel Coen