With The Tragedy of Macbeth, something wickedly inventive this way comes [Apple TV+ review]

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The Tragedy of Macbeth review: Kathryn Hunter casts a spell over The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Kathryn Hunter casts a spell over The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Photo: Apple TV+

The Tragedy of Macbeth is probably the most experimental thing to stream on Apple TV+ so far.

On its face, the film doesn’t seem all that odd. It’s an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-regarded and most frequently performed plays, starring the biggest male lead on earth. It’s directed by a multiple-Oscar-winner and features his similarly lauded (and extremely popular and talented) wife in a lead role.

So, while Apple TV+’s most exciting feature film since Wolfwalkers might not sound like much of an experiment, the devil’s in the details. This adaptation is both expected and unexpected — in frequently thrilling ways.

The Tragedy of Macbeth hits Apple TV+ today after a theatrical run. Here’s why you should add it to your Up Next queue.

The Tragedy of Macbeth review

For those who never read the original play, and missed the 2015 movie with Michael Fassbender, the Patrick Stewart production from five years before that, Orson Welles’ pace-setting 1948 adaptation, Verdi’s opera, Nikolai Leskov’s revisionist Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk (and its myriad adaptations), or any of the 100-some other movies and TV shows inspired by the classic story, here’s Macbeth in a nutshell.

After a definitive battle with the kingdoms of Norway and Ireland, Scotland’s King Duncan (played here by Brendan Gleeson) is feeling pretty good about himself and his forces. One general in particular proves his mettle during this incursion: the king’s relative, Macbeth (Denzel Washington).

While Macbeth and his comrade Banquo (Bertie Carvel) trek from the last battlefield to the king’s tent, they happen across a witch (Kathryn Hunter) … or is it witches?

These women share something fateful with the traveling veterans. Banquo will be a father to a line of kings, and Macbeth will soon be Thane of Cawdor, then king.

They scoff at the witch’s prediction. The Thane (an old-timey word for governor) of Cawdor is in great health and in the king’s favor, right? Wrong. Turns out the king’s just had him executed. So to Macbeth the title falls … curious, no?

Macbeth shares this with his wife (Frances McDormand) and the gears in her brain start turning. Maybe the witches were right. Maybe the time is right for her and her husband to ascend to the throne. As it happens, the king is coming to Macbeth’s castle that very night. Sure would be a shame if something happened to him while he slept off his drunk, believing himself surrounded by friends.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

The Tragedy of Macbeth review: Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand plot to take over the throne of Scotland.
Macbeth (played by Denzel Washington) and wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) plot to take the throne of Scotland.

There’s more to it, but those who know the story know the story, and those who don’t should be able to have the fun of discovery that comes with seeing a Shakespeare production for the first time. If I have a personal favorite adaptation of Macbeth it’s because by default my favorite adaptations of any Shakespeare play are done by Orson Welles.

Welles was a theater student, a director and actor, and then a movie director. So when it came time to adapt Macbeth, Othello and more, there was quite simply no one who was going to understand how better to translate Shakespeare’s splendidly unruly text to film. He gave his actors space to be as big as any given part required. And he stuck them in the most opulently baroque framing in which to deliver the greatest dialogue ever written.

Of Joel Coen and Orson Welles

The Tragedy of Macbeth director Joel Coen, whatever his incredible bonafides, is not Orson Welles. He knows this, however, and so decided that this film was not to be some kind of gauntlet thrown down for future imitators and at his predecessors.

No, if anything this is a movie made in the most generous fashion possible. If you know the name Joel Coen, it’s because he and his brother Ethan have been writing and directing some of the best American movies of the last 35 years. They’ve made classic comedies (Raising ArizonaThe Hudsucker Proxy, Hail, Caesar!), bleak films noir (Blood Simple, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There), and enduring existentialist texts (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man) to name just a few things at which they excel.

In the process, they became household names — quite a rarity for arthouse filmmakers these days. But in the ’90s, when America was still tending to its Woody Allen hangover, it wasn’t uncommon for directors making adult dramas with oblong shapes to become feted and famous.

… and Joel with no Ethan

I’m of the belief that the Coens never got around to making a bad film. Even their legendary flops (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) are hugely enjoyable to me. If I had trepidations about Joel making a movie without Ethan, it’s because I suspected that it was Ethan who was was quicker with a bon mot.

Joel was the one with a closer relationship to the camera (not for nothing was he listed as the sole director on the first dozen or so of their movies). Ethan, a playwright in his downtime, seemed to be the one ensuring that their movies were as funny as they were unsparing.

Sure, you’d laugh, but they’d make you pay for it. Fine by me; too few people seem interested in the ugly little nuances hiding in the depths of our emotions, the things we are and aren’t comfortable enjoying.

So without Ethan, what is Joel?

Back to film school

Well, perhaps predictably in hindsight, Joel didn’t make that an easy calculus because he chose as his departure vehicle one of the greatest works of English fiction. If you can’t have Ethan Coen writing your script, how about William Shakespeare? You have to admire that decision, even if only as a prank.

Joel seems to have been looking for an excuse to make a movie and really focus on the imagery above all else. After all, hire the world’s greatest cast to do Shakespeare, and it’s not like you have to worry overmuch about directing them to greatness. That frees you up a hair to kick up your heels behind the camera.

The Tragedy of Macbeth, and this is the only time I’ll use this as a compliment, feels like a film school final project. As if Joel Coen checked himself into UCLA, spent the semester mainlining works by Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein, Akira Kurosawa and more, and then produced this in his final two weeks of class.

It is thrilling to see someone who’s been honing a style for longer than my entire life pivot hard into something productively old-fashioned. Not that his work with Ethan wasn’t also classical (Hail, Caesar! is 15 classic Hollywood movies in one) but so few people ever recapture the excitement of directing for the first time.

Much like Steven Spielberg (75) and his director of photography Janusz Kamiński (62) produced their most youthful film to date this year in West Side Story, Joel Coen (67) and french cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (64) have made a movie with the energy of teenagers.

Old hat but brand new

Every angle in The Tragedy of Macbeth is carefully storyboarded, every performance is freed of expectation, every cut is as sharp as a sword stroke, every bump and howl from the sound design is loud as a drum solo. This is a movie that wants to show you the ways in which it exists every second of its speedy runtime.

Coen has plainly studied his Welles and Olivier, because his deliberately arch framing, and beautifully minimal set design (think M.C. Escher with the puzzle element removed), exist in that purgatory of “been done” and “brand new.”

Just the idea of putting Denzel Washington in the lead smacks of excitement and possibility. Washington was once a Shakespearian lead during his ’90s heyday, but he’s become a type like so many of our best leading men. It’s greatly edifying to see him assay the role of Macbeth, as much to see what he’ll do as what he won’t.

A cast worth singling out

Of course, he’s hardly the only great player here. Special note must be made of Kathryn Hunter as the witches, the most committed of this game cast’s great performers. She gives her whole body and the fullness of her voice to the part, creating what may be the definitive cinematic take on this part. (She’s helped in no small part by Delbonnel’s amazing presentation of her in shadow and reflection. The film becomes folk horror when the two work in harmony.)

Corey Hawkins makes a strapping and fearless Macduff, the king’s foil. Alex Hassell‘s scheming Ross is most memorable, and Stephen Root makes a meal of his one scene as Porter.

And then the great Brian Thompson (the bulbous heel from the ignominious likes of Cobra, Dragonheart and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) makes his appearance. Thompson has only three scenes, but he nails the movie to the floor while he’s on screen. His deep voice, his beautifully sad features … this is a lead performer who’s been hiding in supporting roles for far too long. It’s a joy to see him taken seriously.

A Macbeth for the ages

I could think of far worse versions of this play to see if you’ve never seen it properly adapted. It’s crafted with just enough lightness, just enough experimental glee, and just enough seriousness to make both a surprisingly fleet-footed movie and a worthy entry in the canon of Shakespeare adaptations.

No one can be Orson Welles again. But Joel Coen decided that it’s a fitting tribute to try and have the kind of fun Welles had while making your art.

The Tragedy of MacBeth will be remembered as an important moment in Joel Coen’s career as a director, when he attempted to step out from behind the shadow of his work with his brother and create something purely his, aided by a roster of incredible talent. Time will tell if his MacBeth will be remembered as fondly as some of the Coen brothers’ best work together, but this is a commendable, to say nothing of unprecedented, step in Joel Coen’s life as an artist.

The reviews are in. Now it’s up to history.

Watch The Tragedy of Macbeth on Apple TV+

The Tragedy of Macbeth premieres today on Apple TV+.

Rated: R

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.