Denzel Washington Reigns in 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

Directed by Joel Coen

Starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Kathryn Hunter

BY Rachel HoPublished Dec 24, 2021

It's exciting to watch the Timothée Chalamets and Daniel Kaluuyas of young Hollywood. There's so much talent and potential to be realized, and, from what we've seen so far, the future of the prestige dramatic actor is in good hands. But sometimes a performance comes along that reminds us — and them — who still reigns supreme.

In Joel Coen's adaptation of The Scottish Play, Denzel Washington is at the top of his game. Playing an older Lord Macbeth, he's a road weary, power-hungry man tortured by his mortality. And the tremendous Frances McDormand joins him as Lady Macbeth, a woman equally consumed with thoughts of power and ravaged by her conscience.

Coen reshuffles some of Shakespeare's play, but The Tragedy of Macbeth still includes all the big hits. Three witches (all played by a truly extraordinary Kathryn Hunter) convince Lord Macbeth of his right to the throne. He subsequently murders King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and assumes the throne, but becomes near-incapacitated by guilt.

One of the biggest changes Coen makes is in the age of his cast: both Washington and McDormand are in their '60s, which adds an interesting layer not often seen in Macbeth adaptations. (For comparison, both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were in their late 30s when they filmed Justin Kurzel's Macbeth).

Rather than youthful arrogance at the centre of the Macbeth's motivations, this version's characters are tainted by desperation — a last-ditch attempt to be remembered. Moreover, their marriage hasn't produced any children, something that adds depth to their decision-making (they leave no legacy) and relationship (it's poignant that Lord Macbeth doesn't mate with someone else).

Coen's script beautifully emphasizes these complexities, and while both Washington and McDormand give life to Coen and Shakespeare's words with effortless grace, it's Washington that stands apart from the rest.

Washington delivers Shakespearean English as if that's how he's spoken his entire life. Mixing a natural, conversational tone with his trademark swagger (both in enunciation and physicality), Washington's Macbeth is entirely his own. In Macbeth's "Is This a Dagger?" soliloquy, Washington's performance creates such tension and suspense, it leaves audiences hanging on his every word, regardless of how many times you've heard those lines before.

If Washington is the MVP in front of the camera, Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel are the difference-makers behind it. The Tragedy of Macbeth's Scotland is sparse and hollow. The design of the sets are purposely flat, giving a nod to the stage, but also giving space for the dialogue to reverberate. And the decision to film the movie digitally adds to the steely coldness of the characters' ruthlessness. Many were curious how Joel would do without brother Ethan, and it's safe to say he succeeds and then some.

It's taken over 40 years for Washington to play Macbeth, and doing so during the back half of his career is rather fitting. The grisly reverence he's able to give Macbeth can only come from age, and the mortality that haunts him can only be innately understood with experience. The Tragedy of Macbeth is the perfect film for Washington right now, a wonderful film that appreciates his legacy. And who knows how many more times Washington will choose to grace the screen. Appreciate the legend now, not later.

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