'The Tragedy of Macbeth' review: Something exceptional this way comes

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand lead this visually bold take on Shakespeare's classic.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

At first you'll feel like you didn't do the homework assignment.

That Shakespeare dialogue comes flying at you fast and furious, and it takes awhile to get used to the way the words flow from characters' mouths, which is lovely and poetic and can also feel like an utter assault if you're not ready for it.  

Denzel Washington in "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

But then you settle into its rhythms and patterns and are swept away by director Joel Coen's disorienting, dreamlike, dizzying visual style, and "The Tragedy of Macbeth" becomes a sumptuous feast and a full-on reinvention of the 1600s tale. At the very least, it's a gift to high school English teachers everywhere, who now have a better, more relevant "Macbeth" to show to students once Shakespeare lessons roll around. 

Denzel Washington, as astonishingly ferocious as ever at age 66, is electrifying as Lord Macbeth, passed over for the crown of Scotland, and Frances McDormand is delectable as his duplicitous wife. The pair has five Oscars between them (from a combined 14 nominations) and here they're mighty Gods, stomping through the scenery and eating up the Bard's material like a juicy steak and savoring every last bite.

Brendan Gleeson is King Duncan, whose son Malcolm (Harry Melling) will be handed his crown, rather than the loyal Macbeth. Plotting, scheming and murdering ensues — encouraged by the three witches, all played with alarming menace by Kathryn Hunter — and McDormand's Lady Macbeth begins her long descent into madness. 

As thrilling as the performances are — Stephen Root is a riot as a drunken Porter, injecting a welcome bit of comic relief into the story — it's the visuals that truly set this "Macbeth" apart, from its squared off aspect ratio to its picture frame-like sensibilities to its hazy version of stage production. This "Macbeth" is in no way meant to look like real life, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel ("Amélie," "Across the Universe") gives it its own surreal look and feel, its simple black-and-white palate somehow feeling like a full range of colors. 

So brush up on the Cliff's Notes if you have to. "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is a startling staging of a classic with a life and energy all its own. Class is in session.



'The Tragedy of Macbeth'


Rated R: for violence

Running time: 105 minutes

In theaters, on Apple TV+ Jan. 14