“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a template for a thoroughly modern take on Shakespeare as Denzel Washington excellently navigates a royal descent into madness but still gets upstaged by one fantastically witchy woman. (And, no, not Frances McDormand.)
With eerie brilliance, British stage legend Kathryn Hunter plays all three of the witches who give Washington’s Scotsman the prophecy that sends him on the Bard’s iconic quest of murder, betrayal and guilt in director Joel Coen’s black-and-white “Macbeth” adaptation (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters now and streaming Friday on Apple TV+).
Turned into a minimalistic supernatural nightmare here, the 11th-century story of political intrigue and bad deeds sticks faithfully to ye olde source material: After leading the army of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in an important defeat of a traitor, Macbeth (Washington) and his friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel) encounter “three weird sisters” who foretell what is to come – most importantly, one states, “All hail Macbeth, who shall be king thereafter.”
It plants a seed in the mind of Macbeth, a world-weary general getting up in age, so much that he’s put off when Duncan names his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) the Prince of Cumberland, thereby making him the rightful heir to the throne. Macbeth mentions his new ambition in a correspondence to his wife, Lady Macbeth (McDormand), a calculating sort who wants to off Duncan when the king visits their castle. When Macbeth has second thoughts, his spouse attacks his manhood to help convince him, the deed is done, and Macbeth takes the kingship when Malcolm flees the country, putting the increasingly unstable new despot at odds with Duncan loyalist Macduff (Corey Hawkins).
Coen, who makes his solo directorial debut after a career of Oscar-nominated works with brother Ethan, keeps the authentic Shakespearean language and sets it against artificial production design, really leaning into that whole “all the world’s a stage” mindset. It gives “Tragedy” an interesting Expressionist vibe that doesn’t always work, yet adds noir-ish style and intimacy to Washington and McDormand’s character-driven scenes. It also ramps up the moodiness of the creepier aspects, such as heavy fog drifts, cackling ravens, vengeful ghosts, floating daggers and divinations via a child’s disembodied head.
The tale’s central power couple are two of the most infamous characters in literature, performed by generations of actors, and what Washington and McDormand bring is a winning desperation to two people who finally want what’s owed to them. McDormand lends a quietly unnerving bent to her lady’s scheming. And with his various monologues and soliloquies, Washington plays a man twisted and corrupted by the decisions he makes so successfully that when Macbeth intones “Full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,” you completely believe him. Those who appreciate his Oscar-winning turn in “Training Day” will adore his also-award-worthy mad king.
We know he’s a legend, though: Hunter is the refreshing, movie-stealing performer most folks won’t recognize. A veteran of Shakespearean productions who made a minor appearance in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Hunter is remarkable in her role as the witches. The freaky trio come alive through different croaky voices out of the same hooded, contorting figure who garners chills every time she speaks. If you’re wondering if we really need another “Macbeth,” she’s pretty much the best reason.
With “Tragedy of Macbeth,” something wicked this way comes – something familiar to anyone who remembers high school English classes but also at times a darkly enchanting delight.