Director Joel Coen sparks sound and fury signifying something with his take on The Tragedy of Macbeth. He shows the versatility embodied in William Shakespeare’s play, the one read by countless high school students and interpreted by many filmmakers. The play’s witches, murder, insanity, duplicitous prophecies and other lurid elements manage to hold student attention (at least to some degree).
Those same qualities provide visual intensity suited to the screen. Orson Welles added to the story’s darkness; Akira Kurosawa proved that a transfer from Scotland to Japan maintains the play’s basic observations about power; Roman Polansky--not surprisingly--reminds viewers just how bloody all that action really was; and as recently as 2015, director Justin Kurzel brought out realistic location and period elements. With his version of the Scottish play, Coen, a frequent Oscar nominee and winner with his brother Ethan, breaks out on his own to find a stylistic inner Ingmar Bergman and blends naturalistic performances with startling set pieces. Coen lets his American leads work their own Shakespearean cadences without forcing them into Scottish brogues or refined British accents. Of course, it never hurts when those actors come with the credentials and skills of Denzell Washington and Frances McDormand. The two understand the characters they play, speaking Shakespeare’s words as if they just thought them up themselves. Those words remain indelible, as something wicked this way comes in the corrupting force of an immoral power play. Black and white cinematography in sets with strong shadows and sharp lines puts the piece into its own world. The resulting dislocation suits the film well, with action feeling right at home when greedy humans seek outrageous fortunes. The Tragedy of Macbeth plays in local theaters and on Apple-plus.