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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand star in lean, pristine Shakespeare

Director Joel Coen’s adaptation heightens the mood with stark angles and long shadows.

In “The Tragedy of MacBeth,” Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play a lord and lady who have suffered for decades and no longer have much patience.
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“Unnatural deeds to breed unnatural troubles.” —The doctor in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

We’ve been blessed with 18 movies from the Coen Brothers and there have been more than 20 cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and now we have Joel Coen’s first movie without brother Ethan and how about this, it’s called “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and it’s one of the most visually striking and leanest versions of “the Scottish play” ever put on film, with blockbuster performances from Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington as Lady and Lord Macbeth, and a brilliant supporting cast.

You can tell every single actor in this story is relishing every single line, every single twist of the Shakespearean verbal blade. It’s an ensemble master class and a wonder to behold — made all the more striking by the silky, black-and-white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, the stark and gorgeous sets created on Los Angeles soundstages and a nearly square aspect ratio that only adds to the claustrophobic, disorienting, dream-turned-into-nightmare presentation of the material. This is one deeply fractured fairy tale.

Clocking in at a brisk 105 minutes, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” sets the stage for events to come when Lord Macbeth, weary but still majestic, returns as the conquering hero who has quelled a rebellion against the beloved King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson, magnificent), earning him a promotion to Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth has reason to believe he will become “king hereafter,” according to the prophecy voiced by the “weird sisters,” aka witches, all played by the amazing Kathryn Hunter — but he soon learns the king’s son Malcolm (Harry Melling) has been named Prince of Cumberland and is next in line for the throne.

Outrage! Despair! Anger! With McDormand’s Lady Macbeth fueling his vengeance and urging him to take what is rightfully his (at least in their eyes), Macbeth murders the king in a shocking and brutal fashion — and this is just the beginning of a body count that will increase quickly and dramatically, as Macbeth descends into a figure of desperate paranoia. (That Washington and McDormand are in their 60s, a generation older than many actors who have played these roles, adds an extra layer of desperation and mad motivation to their actions. These are two characters who have lived and fought and suffered for decades, and don’t have the luxury of time or patience anymore.)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” has a deliberately stagey look thanks to the impeccably crafted sets, but is also every inch a film, with director Coen and his visual team using stark angles and long shadows and reflecting pools of water and images of clouds rolling in to reflect the impending sense of doom swallowing Lord and Lady Macbeth as their actions grow ever darker. McDormand is magnificent, while Washington delivers one of the most impressive performances of his career as a Lord Macbeth who can rattle the rafters with his booming proclamations — but just as often speaks in an almost conversational tone, making his words all the more effectively unsettling.