Coen’s MacBeth brings the Scottish play to Apple TV


The recent Macbeth production directed by Joel Coen (of the Coen brothers) has collected three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Denzel Washington, and yet I spent most of the movie not liking his performance. Before you call blasphemy and quit reading this review in a huff, allow me to admit that I had mostly changed my mind by the end. But for the first hour, I was very conflicted about Washington’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s great icon of violent ambition.   

It’s not that he can’t deliver a line. He doesn’t put on any Shakespearean airs, and there’s no fake British accent, which I appreciated. As always, Denzel Washington has authenticity. But in my mind, he seemed too low-key, too gentile, too elegant.   

Soon after murdering King Duncan in cold blood, Washington’s Macbeth addresses the horrified court to explain why he executed the king’s obviously-guilty footmen before they could even be questioned: “Yet I do repent me of my fury, that I did kill them…who can be wise amazed, temperate and furious…in an instant?” And yet there is absolutely nothing furious or amazed in his face or his voice. I had a very hard time imagining this Macbeth killing anyone. He appeared to be as mild mannered and affable as, well, Denzel Washington.  

I kept watching nonetheless. Shakespeare’s writing (obviously) never disappoints. And holy smokes that cinematography! Every penny I have is on this film winning the Oscar for its sublime black-and-white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. You could literally pause this film at any single moment, snap a screen shot, and take it straight to Walgreens to print and frame. The stark, stunning, film-noir imagery is too good to describe in a single paragraph. Just go watch it.   

And thus, my eyes could not look away. I watched every move of this understated, silky Macbeth in hopes that I’d eventually “get into it.” With every scene, I kept thinking. Do I believe his ambition? Doesn’t he sound too calm to be a brutal villain? And then it hit me – this is the real-life truth of political power players. They gain influence with calm, rational, elegant speeches. They don’t look villainous on the surface. The worst of politicians and tyrants are highly appealing in one way or another, at least to a voting majority, and this makes us less likely to suspect the truth of their worst, hidden sins.   

By the end of Macbeth’s career, his head is so packed with the dope of success, he believes he cannot fail. But just in case, he’s more than willing to stomp out the lives of more and more innocent people in a crazed effort to maintain power. “I bear a charmed life,” he says moments before Macduff runs him through with a righteous sword. By this final scene, Washington’s Macbeth seems all too believable.   

Although I still don’t have much confidence that Washington will get the acting Oscar, Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth strikes me as a top pick for supporting actress. And Delbonnel should go ahead and clear a space on his mantel.   

The Tragedy of Macbeth runs just under two hours and is available for streaming on Apple TV, and the Academy Awards show airs on March 27.  

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