The Tragedy of Macbeth

Denzel Washington stars as the titular character in "The Tragedy of Macbeth." 

Shakespeare. The name alone can be an intimidating one as you recall your high school English class and a pile of Cliffs or SparkNotes. The language, a seemingly antiquated one, can put many to sleep.

But thanks to the vision of Joel Cohen, who reimagines the classic tale of Macbeth, Shakespeare comes to life in strikingly stark shades of black, white and gray to reflect the overall tone of Lady Macbeth and her power-seeking hubby, played by Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington, respectively.

Whether you know the story or not, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will seep into your veins as you watch the murderous plot unravel, dragging our characters deeper and deeper into a soulless abyss. It’s a complicated tale with tangled webs of lies and deceptions that form an intricate story to digest long after the credits roll.

Bringing a story such as this to life to make it captivatingly entertaining — and understandable — you need to pay careful attention to every aspect of filmmaking, and Cohen nails it every step of the way. First, the cast.

Washington ramps up his skillset to portray the conniving and coveting general who longs to rule the land. A bit stiff in the beginning, Washington finds the heart and soul of Macbeth as his character plunges into his sordid deeds.

The passion boils beneath the surface of Macbeth as he narrates his own wrong-doings and then wrestles with the psychological consequences. Countering his charged performance is yet another Oscar-worthy one from McDormand as Lady Macbeth. She finds the shrewd and manipulative ability to pull Macbeth’s strings like a puppeteer, never questioning the moralistic integrity of it all.

McDormand and Washington are magical together, balancing Shakespeare’s intentions in the story, as the entire cast exudes an intensity of understanding in their performances. Cohen doesn’t omit anyone as he includes Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), the tragic and vengeful Macduff (Corey Hawkins) and the innocent victim, Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram).

But it is Kathryn Hunter’s haunting performance as the Witches that will send shivers down your spine. She contorts and transforms into multiple versions of a witchy self and of ravens perching high above with her gravely deep voice warning Macbeth of what’s to come. It’s chillingly memorable.

While the language is difficult to understand at times, the passion behind the characters’ deliveries makes it very clear as to what’s happening. And it is quite interesting when you hear phrases used today that perhaps originated centuries ago.

To hear Hunter’s Witch recite “Double, double toil and trouble,” will reverberate in your mind for days. You also will recognize “Something wicked this way comes,” “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” and “One fell swoop,” among many more.

Directing this ensemble cast is pivotal in recreating Shakespeare, and Cohen daringly pares down the set. He focuses on what’s important and leaves out the extraneous aspects that otherwise would clutter the set and our understanding.

At times, it’s claustrophobic, exactly what Macbeth is feeling, as the camera closes in and limits our visual field. The black and white starkness punctuates the formidable future and the square aspect ratio zeroes in on what’s important for us to see.

Shakespeare’s tales are timeless, and Cohen finds a way to retell Macbeth in a uniquely powerful way. Incredible attention to all aspects of filmmaking, from screenwriting and set design to directing and acting, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will renew your interest in one of the masters of storytelling.

Reel Talk rating: 4 stars

Pamela Powell is a film critic located in Bourbonnais and a member of the CFCA, the CCA, and is a Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Writing reviews for 10 years, Pamela also can be found on WCIA TV in Champaign. She can be contacted at pampowell5@att.net

Film critic

New York native film critic Pamela Powell now resides in Bourbonnais where she has been reviewing big blockbuster films as well as independent gems for the last 10+ years.