The first time I watched any full version of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" was a 2015 film version by Justin Kurzel starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Since then, I had already been able to watch a couple of stage versions of the play as well. Therefore, the story and the characters were now familiar to me which helped a lot as I watched this new film version, which was also in Shakespearean prose and verse.
Macbeth was a Scottish nobleman who fought for King Duncan. After winning a bloody battle, Macbeth and his compatriot Banquo encounter three witches who tell their futures. Macbeth will become King of Scotland, while Banquo will become the father of a line of kings. When his wife Lady Macbeth learns of the prophecy, she exhorts her husband to kill Duncan in order to fulfill it. With this deed done though, Macbeth's very sanity unravels with his greed and guilt.
Since the story is expected to be well-known to audiences already, director Joel Coen (on solo flight this time, not with younger brother and directorial partner Ethan) decided to devote more of his effort on cinematic techniques to set his version apart from all other previous film versions that have been made before his, by masters like Orson Welles (1948), Roman Polanski (1971) and Akira Kurosawa (adapted into Japanese as "Throne of Blood," 1957).
In sharp black and white, with glaring light in a square-ish aspect ratio of 1.19:1, Coen used a bizarre sense of imagery with some creative shots and angles care of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. These unique choices by Coen fit right into the story's morbid tale of greed and madness, novel to behold and interesting to study. A remarkable decision Coen made was to have a single actress Kathryn Hunter play a contorted version of the iconic three witches.
Being in his 60s, Denzel Washington is grizzled and grey here, as so was Frances McDormand, much older than other cinematic Macbeths and Lady Macbeths. Aside from further showcasing the range of these two already multiple Oscar-acclaimed actors, their advanced ages gave the story an air of urgency that pushed these two aging characters to desperately go for their ambition while they still can, murder or be damned.
Aside from Washington as Macbeth, the key character of Macduff, whom the witches warned Macbeth about, was also played by a black actor, Corey Hawkins. This was was a wise casting decision, given that they had chosen to diversify the race of the characters.
However overall, while visually stunning, the starkness of the grayscale palette and the simplicity of the set design somehow made the whole film feel emotionally cold and distant.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”