Historian and politician John Dalberg Acton is quoted saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Is it possible he was reading William Shakespeare’s 1606 play Macbeth when he thought of this? Macbeth has always been a story about power, and corruption of the spirit. How greed could turn two seemingly good people in sociopaths. Was it dormant within them? Or was it an opportunity that sent Lord and Lady Macbeth the two into a power-obsessed frenzy? Director Joel Coen explores the consequences of war, and loss through a fantastical, almost surrealist-like lens, and executes Shakespeare’s work in a way that gains inspiration from other adaptations of the play, while creating a version that is all his own.
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Crows hover under the surface of the sun, while a death-knell rings. The weird sisters (played brilliantly by Kathryn Hunter) begin their monologue that foreshadows what’s to come. Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) approach the witch and receive the prophecy: Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor before becoming King of Scotland, and Banquo will give birth to Kings, but will never be one. He is unsure whether to believe it or not, until he is granted the new title by King Duncan (Brendon Gleeson).
The soon-to-be-King writes a letter to wife Lady Macbeth (Francis McDormand), and with all the excitement of a little kid in Chuck E. Cheese, Lady Macbeth is ready to make prophecy reality, and can’t wait for her husband to get home so they can plot. Macbeth is in such a vulnerable state after returning from war, convincing him to kill the king and take the crown is an easy task. Sure, he has some reservations, but the Lady is so manipulative and persuasive, he can’t say no. He kills Duncan, is given the crown–and all hell breaks loose.
Lord and Lady Macbeth are two severely mentally ill individuals suffering from more than thoughtless ambition. Macbeth is a general who served in back to back wars without break and is possibly suffering from some type of post-traumatic stress disorder. Lady Macbeth is a childless wife, who recently just lost another child, and is rendered infertile. With the chance to make themselves royalty to distract themselves from the crappy lot in life. Why not seize the moment?! Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out two well for the duo, As their roles reverse, the once remorseful Macbeth goes on a thoughtless killing spree, while Lady Macbeth begins to feel copious amounts of guilt. As their time as King and Queen beings to dwindle, murder and suicide seems the only way out of the mess they made.
Joel Coen is doing some sublime work. The style is a complete departure from the years of work he’s done with his brother Ethan. Every aspect of the production works in unison by combining stage and screen sensibilities to execute his masterful vision of the Scottish play. When two people are in a scene, they stand at 45 degree angles, which adds to the dramatic effect of a scene. The intoxicating lighting (which often resembles moonlight), reflected through Stefan Dechant elaborate production design makes the story feel larger than life. All of these aspects are further enhanced by Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, tight and crisp framing of settings, scenes and actors.
However, the production wouldn’t be as strong if it were not led by two of the best actors in the business. Denzel Washington is no stranger to Shakespeare. He played Prince Aragon in Kenneth Branaugh’s 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. He also starred in the 2005 production of Julius Caesar. He brings that same vigor and brings Macbeth to life. Instead of opting for a rough and tumble performance that is normally embraced by actors in this role, Macbeth is quiet, methodical, and intentional about his actions. Washington is anchored by the formidable Lady Macbeth. Francis McDormand runs through the role with reckless abandon and commands the screen. In fact, her character is so frightening, many of her scenes include subtle horror elements that add bravado to the character’s onscreen persona.