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The Tragedy of Macbeth may be a well-worn tale, but Joel Coen's visually dazzling adaptation breathes new life into it

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Writer-director Joel Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men) helms this film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play about a Scottish lord (Denzel Washington) who, convinced by a trio of witches he'll be the next king of Scotland and spurred on by his ambitious wife (Frances McDormand), becomes responsible for a series of murders. (104 min.)

BLACK AND WHITE, RIGHT AND WRONG Sparse set design and stark lighting combine to create a visually arresting retelling of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare's meditation of ambition, greed, and betrayal, screening at the Palm Theatre and Apple TV Plus. - PHOTO COURTESY OF A24 AND IAC FILMS
  • Photo Courtesy Of A24 And Iac Films
  • BLACK AND WHITE, RIGHT AND WRONG Sparse set design and stark lighting combine to create a visually arresting retelling of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare's meditation of ambition, greed, and betrayal, screening at the Palm Theatre and Apple TV Plus.
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Glen This film looks amazing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) is simply mesmerizing. The sparse, angular set designs and stark lighting strip this familiar story down to its bare essentials. What you'll remember most are the images—these beautifully composed moments. The way Coen staged and shot the three witches who bestow upon Macbeth their deadly prophecy is equally unforgettable, and Kathryn Hunter as the witches delivers a creepy and unsettling performance. If you think this 400-year-old play can't be told in a fresh way, this film is out to prove you wrong. It's visually dazzling despite its spartan look, and the acting is thankfully restrained and focused. Washington and McDormand avoid scenery chewing in favor of underplaying some of their characters' famous soliloquies: "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" "Out, damned spot! Out I say!" These are some of the most famous lines in the English language, and yet they feel fresh and natural in the film's context, which Coen adapted for the screen. The Macbeths' ambition, envy, betrayal, and greed feel very modern and very real. If you've never seen or read the play, this would be a perfect introduction.

Anna Talk about atmosphere, this film is full of it! I was curious to see how Coen would breathe life into this long-toothed tale, but he certainly pulled it off here with his choice in sets and cinematography. The actors get to shine here, and they very much do. Washington and McDormand are equally phenomenal actors and make for an excellent pairing. I also loved Hunter as the witches—she was wonderfully creepy and foreboding. Watching Shakespeare isn't everyone's cup of tea, I get it—and if you're unwilling to give it your focus, this is the type of script and film that may not hold your attention, but that said, this is a pretty riveting way to tell this story. The black and white cinematography is used to great effect and the cold, angular castle a perfect setting for this tragedy. This film knows that its audience probably knows the tale or at least the premise going in and smartly chooses to rely on the well-seasoned cast to captivate those watching, and they do.

Glen It's been many years since I studied the play, and its Shakespearian English slipped past my comprehension here and there, but despite the archaic language, it's pretty easy to follow this tale of unrestrained ambition. Macbeth is a moral man, so it seems, but after the witches tell him he'll be first named Thane of Cawdor and later king of Scotland, his morality can't keep in check his desire for power, and his wife—unconstrained by a conscience like her husband—manages to push him further to his misdeeds. Once the killing starts, out of paranoia, Macbeth must continue to kill to protect his reign. By the time the witches intone, "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," Macbeth's transformation into someone truly irredeemable has been complete. He's the embodiment of what happens when hubris and greed go unchecked, and the only possible result is his downfall. The outcome of this story is never in doubt, so the conclusion is going to surprise no one, but the telling of this familiar tale? It's surprising and intelligent and unquestionably art. This is superior filmmaking.

Anna It's truly watching a man unravel at his own hand, a tale of greed and lust for power. McDormand is strong and vengeful as Lady Macbeth, one of literature's great "wicked women." Corey Hawkins as MacDuff was another compelling performance, as well as Bertie Carvel as Banquo. As you said, even in moments where the phrasing or language may have been outside my grasp at the moment, the plot is a pretty easy one to keep up with. Shakespeare can be pretty heady stuff, but this tale of greed and power and death is so innately human that it doesn't feel fantastical in the least, even when witches appear. This film won't be for everyone, but both critics and audiences seem to enjoy it according to Rotten Tomatoes, and it is a stunning visual treat. If you can get down with some Shakespeare, Coen's version of this tale should definitely speak to you, and Washington's performance alone is worth the time invested. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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