“The Tragedy of Macbeth” was theatrically released nationwide in 2021 and is now streaming on AppleTV+. Watch this work of art on a TV screen and you’ll likely agree that last year’s “Best Film” is this year’s masterpiece.
Joel Coen (“O, Brother, Where Art Thou”) has created a magnum opus that sets a high bar few other films vying for annual awards will ever reach. He reinterprets one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Macbeth,” keeping the most pivotal parts and accentuating subplots and characters at will.
Some potential viewers may have forgotten the crux of the plotting, but not the most famous lines: “Double, double toil and trouble;” “What’s done cannot be undone.”
Scottish general Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is warned by three witches (Kathryn Hunter) that someday he’ll be king. Heeding that prophecy and egged on by his ambitious wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), the impatient officer kills the current king, becomes the new ruler, and murders more people during his uncontrollable fits of paranoia.
A rebellion erupts, aiming to overthrow him. Themes of greed, deception and ruthlessness mirror the U.S.’s recent political spectrum and should enthrall audiences with its timeliness.
This film is shot in stunning black and white (cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Harry Potter and the “Half-Blood Prince”) with the most arresting production design (Stefan Dechant, “Avatar”), art direction (Jason T. Clark, “Black Panther”), set decoration (Nancy Haigh, “Barton Fink”) and regal costumes (Mary Zophres, “La La Land”).
Haunting shadows and light. Shapes and textures. Darkness and white. The vivid images will entrance audiences as much as the penetrating dialogue, treacherous plot points and Coen’s gifted direction.
Comparisons to the style of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles’ classic 1940s Shakespeare adaptations and early 20th-century German expressionism are noted. However, Cohen’s netherworld seems unique and new in its own way. Not filmed as a stage play, not set in real surroundings. A hybrid. And rarely does black and white footage produce more of an expressive richness than the most vibrant and vivid color film. But it does here.
When Oscar acting nominations are handed out, expect Washington’s brooding performance and McDormand’s scheming portrayal to top the lists. As bitter, aging co-conspirators, they take cunning and evilness to a new level. They seethe like vipers, as duplicitous as any con artists could be.
Award nominations should also be given to Alex Hassell as the sleezy vulture Ross, Bertie Carvel as Banquo, Moses Ingram as Lady Macduff, Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) as the brave and righteous Macduff and, of course, Hunter as the sorceresses who delivered both a prophecy and misfortune in equal portions.
You may need a bit of patience and a sharp ear to understand the dialogue, which was originally written in the 1600s and adapted by Coen. However, your perseverance will be rewarded. At the end of your 1hr- 45m-journey, you’ll discover that every element of this object d’art is beyond excellent.
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Who could have guessed that shrewd, vile cruelty could be so dang mesmerizing?
“The Tragedy of MacBeth is now playing on Apple TV+. It is also playing in select theaters in the Twin Cities. Check your local listings for showtimes.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.