Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand

September 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/A24/Apple TV+)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” 

Directed by Joel Coen

Culture Representation: Taking place in Scotland and England in the 1600s, the dramatic film “The Tragedy of Macbeth” features a cast of white and black people representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A ruthlessly ambitious husband and wife lie, cheat and murder their way into becoming king and queen of Scotland, but their sins eventually catch up to them with deadly consequences.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of fans of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” play, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” will appeal primarily to fans of Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen.

Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/A24/Apple TV+)

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” gives William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth” the minimalist treatment, laying bare the raw intensity of the story, which is masterfully channeled via powerhouse performances from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Joel Coen (McDormand’s husband and longtime artistic collaborator) wrote and directed “The Tragedy of Macbeth” as a striking hybrid of an observational filmed stage play and an immersive cinematic experience. At a relatively brisk run time of 105 minutes, the movie defies the notion that movies made from Shakespeare’s work have to be pompous, self-indulgent bores. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” had its world premiere at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

Filmed in black and white, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stays faithful to the source material but rolls out as a more streamlined piece of art that makes this version of the Macbeth story more accessible to people with short attention spans. People interested in watching the movie probably have some familiarity already with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a tragic play that was first performed in 1606 and first published in 1623. Most people would agree that “Macbeth”—with its timeless themes of how a corrupt pursuit of power can destroy lives—remains among the top three of Shakespeare’s best and most well-known work.

There’s really no need to rehash a plot that a lot of viewers will know before seeing this movie. The story is essentially about a married power couple who want to rule over Scotland as king and queen, no matter what the cost. Washington portrays the title character as a man on a mission to get what he feels is owed to him after years of feeling unappreciated as a loyal lord to Scotland’s King Duncan (played by Brendan Gleeson), who is about to be viciously murdered.

The mastermind of this assassination is Macbeth’s wife Lady Macbeth (played by Frances McDormand), whose power and intelligence is underestimated by most people because she is a woman. However, behind the scenes and behind closed doors, Lady Macbeth is a master manipulator who is in many ways more cold-hearted and single-minded in her ambition than her husband is. When he has doubts about any of the dastardly deeds that she has in mind, she pushes those doubts out of his mind and motivates him to follow through with her plans.

Clawing one’s way to the top of Scotland’s royal hierarchy, without being a blood relative of a royal, means that a lot of people will have to die. (The killing scenes aren’t too gory, but there are a few non-explicit scenes involving child murder that might be disturbing for very sensitive viewers.) King Duncan has two adult sons: elder son Malcolm (played by Harry Melling) and Donalbain (played by Matt Helm), who are dutiful but unprepared for the destruction inflicted by the Macbeth couple. As the body count piles up, false accusations will fly, paranoia reaches a fever point, and certain people face a reckoning that seems to ask the question: “Was all that backstabbing worth it in the end?”

Other characters in the play that are also in the movie include Banquo (played by Bertie Carvel), Macbeth’s close ally and a general in King Duncan’s army; Fleance (played by Lucas Barker) Banquo’s son, who’s about 10 or 11 years old in the movie; Macduff (played by Corey Hakwins), Thane of Fife; and Lady Macduff (played by Moses Ingram), Macduff’s wife. Macduff is the first one in the king’s inner circle to suspect that Macbeth and his wife might be up to no good.

Just like like in the “Macbeth” play, the catalyst for Macbeth thinking he has a right to take the throne comes early on in the story when he envisions three witches who tell him a prophecy that he will become the king. However, the introduction of these witches in the movie doesn’t follow standard convention. At first, there’s the appearance of one witch (played by Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three identical witches), who is first seen with her face down in a sandy and barren area, like a vulture who’s hunched over from dehydration.

This witch, just like her look-alikes, is dressed all in black has bird-like mannerisms and even caws like a crow. She contorts her body and flaps her arms, like an ave from hell. And later, when she is joined by the other two witches, they transform into large and menacing black birds.

Washington’s portrayal of Macbeth is as a hothead who is prone to losing control of his emotions and stomping around and shouting as a way to intimidate people. Macbeth is all about short-term gratification. McDormand’s depiction of Lady Macbeth is as someone who is more likely to think long-term and see the big picture.

The difference between Lady Macbeth and her husband is that Lady Macbeth knows when to keep her mouth shut and not give away too much information. Witness the brilliant facial expressions of McDormand as Lady Macbeth in a scene where her husband Macbeth is ranting about something to a group of people in the king’s court. Lady Macbeth thinks he might let some valuable information slip, but she says nothing in order to keep up a façade of ignorance. However, the look on her face shows a brief flash of alarm, as if she’s thinking, “He better not say anything stupid!”

Lady Macbeth has a temper too. She just doesn’t show it to people who could use this “unladylike” demeanor against her. And when McDormand’s Lady Macbeth gets angry, she bellows and barks in a voice that’s deep enough to sound like a man. McDormand’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth is that she knows her own power and strength. She’s not a fussy and frilly wife but one who’s willing to blur the lines of gender roles by showing a more masculine side than how other female actors might interpret this character.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” has some recurring visual motifs that work well for a movie that was filmed in black and white and has a mild fascination with flight in open skies. First, there are multiple scenes that have a starry night as a backdrop. In a memorable moment, Lady Macbeth let’s go of a burning piece of paper, which flies out the window and into the night. And when the witches turn into birds, which happens more than once in the movie, it also exemplifies the type of flight that conjures of images of dark forces that hover and can’t be tamed.

Another effective visual technique that’s used in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is conveying the feeling of being spied on and targeted. A scene with Banquo opens with what looks like a spotlight resembling a bullseye lens. The camera zooms up to show an aerial view of Banquo in this spotlight. It’s a foreshadowing of what happens later to Banquo, because he indeed becomes a target. And later in the movie, the three witches are perched on wooden square beams, as the witches look down like vultures ready to pounce.

Because there have been so many different adaptations of “Macbeth,” Coen succeeds in the intent to offer Macbeth through the lens of living in a world where generations of filmmakers and movie audiences have been influenced by the nightmarish lighting contrasts of German Expressionism. The movie’s cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel), production design (by Stefan Dechant) and visual effects (supervised by Michael Huber and Alex Lemke) are stark and compelling, ranging from set pieces that look like they were made for a theater stage to the majestic simplicity of a cliff that becomes a pivotal location.

And when Lady Macbeth literally lets her hair down in private moments, she can be disheveled—more frump and happenstance than pomp and circumstance. Occasionally messy hair aside, Lady Macbeth’s wardrobe and the rest of the characters’ clothes are completely on point, thanks to stellar costume design by Mary Zophres. The costumes in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” might be the only reason to wish that this movie hadn’t been in black and white. However, the film’s monochromatic pallette is understandable, in order to reflect the dark despair that permeates throughout the story.

The members of this movie’s international cast use their natural accents. Most of the cast members are British. Washington, McDormand and Hawkins are American, while Gleeson is Irish. The varied accents are not a distraction, because the words of Shakespeare make everything sound very much of the era in which it was written. Accents just sound more classical when quoting Shakespeare.

All of the supporting actors in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” play their roles well, with Hawkins being a standout as the intuitive Macduff, a good man who loves his wife and kids and who finds himself in the crosshairs of death and betrayal. It’s hard to go wrong with a Shakespeare classic, a cast of this high level of talent, and a director who consistently makes films whose quality is above-average. The “Macbeth” story is a well-worn road for enthusiasts of performing arts, but “The Tragedy of Macbeth” makes this familiar ride very entertaining.

A24 will release “The Tragedy of Macbeth” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021. Apple TV+ will premiere the movie on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Old Guard,’ starring Charlize Theron

July 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlize Theron, Luca Marinelli and Kiki Layne (Photo by Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

“The Old Guard”

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Culture Representation: Taking place in France, England and briefly in Morocco, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the action flick “The Old Guard” has a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Immortal social-justice warriors battle against a greedy corporate mogul and his mercenaries who want to capture the immortals so that their special powers can be mined for profits.

Culture Audience: “The Old Guard” will appeal primarily to fans of Charlize Theron and people who like extra-violent superhero movies with underlying social messages.

Charlize Theron in “The Old Guard” (Photo by Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

With so many superhero movies and TV shows flooding the market, what makes “The Old Guard” stand out from the pack is that morality and alliances aren’t always as cut-and-dry as they are in other superhero stories about good versus evil. Although there’s plenty of thrilling action in “The Old Guard,” what will keep audiences coming back for more are the protagonists’ distinct personalities and the feeling that their background stories have fascinating layers of extra intrigue.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka (he adapted the screenplay from his “The Old Guard” graphic novel series), “The Old Guard” movie starts off by introducing a tight-knit group of four immortal social-justice warriors who have lived for centuries but play by their own rules. These immortals have the enigmatic ability to have any of their wounds heal quickly, which is why these fighters are virtually indestructible when they are physically attacked.

They don’t know how they got their superpowers and they don’t know when their superpowers will stop working. But they got these superpowers at some point in their lives when they were supposed to die but instead mysteriously recovered. They can feel pain when wounded, and someone who has these newly acquired superpowers will not be able to heal as quickly as someone who’s had these superpowers longer. Technically, these immortals aren’t really “immortal,” because they can’t live forever, but they have the ability to live for centuries.

All of this information is not explained up front in “The Old Guard” movie, but instead these details are revealed in bits and pieces, much like the personalities of main players involved. The group’s leader (and the one who’s lived the longest) is Andromache the Scythian, nicknamed Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a tough-as-nails cynic who’s more afraid of being exposed and captured than she is of dying.

Andy’s right-hand man in the group is Booker (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), an adventurous French soldier, who became an immortal during the War of 1812. Rounding out the quartet are lovers/soul mates Joe (played Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (played by Luca Marinelli), a Middle Eastern man and an Italian man who became immortal while they were fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades. In this movie, Andy won’t say when she became immortal.

Booker is similar to Andy in having a certain jaded quality to his personality, but Booker is a lot more impulsive than Andy, who is always on guard about their group being exposed as immortals. Joe is more vocal and overtly passionate than Nicky, who tends to be more level-headed and sensitive. Together, they have been a “found family” for centuries.

Andy and her group make money as underground hired mercenaries for people or causes that they feel comfortable helping. While in Marrakesh, Morocco, a former CIA agent named James Copley (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks the group to help him rescue a group of 17 South Sudanese students (ages 8 to 13), who were kidnapped by militia, who murdered the teachers in the school. At first, Andy doesn’t want to do the mission. “We don’t do repeats,” she tells Booker, “It’s too risky.”

However, Andy changes her mind after she Copley (a widower whose wife died of ALS) tells her that food and water have not ben brought into the hostage area for several days. Andy and her crew travel to South Sudan. And this rescue mission leads the immortals to find out that they’re being hunted by a nerdy but ruthless leader of a corporate pharmaceutical company: Steven Merrick (played by Harry Melling) of Merrick Pharmacy.

Merrick wants to capture all the known immortals on Earth, so Merrick’s team of scientists can figure out and extract that physical components that can heal wounds and make people live for centuries. Merrick thinks he’s in a race against time because he wants to get the patent on this superpower product before any of the company’s competitors. The ultimate goal? Untold wealth and power.

Merrick has also begun selling a new pharmaceutical product that caused thousands of lab rats to die, and this new product’s flaws will soon be discovered by the general public. If he can find the secret to these immortals’ regeneration powers, it can be used as an antidote to the faulty pharmaceutical product that Merrick rushed to market.

Meanwhile, the quartet of immortals begins having shared dreams of a young lieutenant in the U.S. Marines named Nile Freeman (played by KiKi Layne), who is currently stationed in Afghanistan. They’re certain that Nile is a long-lost immortal who doesn’t know it yet. While in Afghanistan, Nile is part of a military team that captures a known terrorist who’s hiding in a small village dwelling.

The terrorist slashes Nile’s throat in such a deep and vicious way that it seems obvious that Nile will die from that jugular wound. However, not only does she survive, but the wound mysteriously disappears. Nile explains to her incredulous fellow soldiers that doctors were able to cover up her neck wound with a “skin graft,” but even Nile knows how unbelievable that story sounds. People who thought she was going to die start to look at her differently, as if she’s some kind of supernatural freak.

As Nile is still trying to figure out why she seems to have regeneration superpowers, she’s told that she’s going to be transferred to another station for further medical exams. Before that can happen, Andy abducts Nile and takes her to a remote desert area. Andy tells a disbelieving Nile that Nile is now an immortal who has to go into hiding with Andy and her group of immortals because they are being hunted.

Nile is reluctant to go with this stranger, who tells Nile that she will have to cut off contact with her family. Nile is also having a hard time believing that she’s now immortal until some vigorous physical fights with Andy prove that Andy is telling the truth. But just like a stubborn pupil who won’t listen to a teacher who knows best, Nile clashes with Andy several times because Nile has a lot of difficulty adjusting to her new life.

During the course of the story, Nile opens up to Andy and the rest of the immortals, while they do the same with her. It’s revealed that Andy’s biggest heartache and regret is how she couldn’t save her best friend Quynh (played by Van Veronica Ngo) from being put in an iron lady cage and buried in the ocean about 500 years ago, when Andy and Quynh were captured and persecuted for being witches.

Meanwhile, Booker is haunted by outliving his children, one of whom was a son who died of cancer in his early 40s. When Booker told his terminally ill son about his secret superpower, Booker was heartbroken over not being able to share that superpower with his dying son, who angrily and wrongly blamed Booker for not being able to save him from death. It’s one of the reasons why Andy thinks it’s a mistake to get too close to any “regular” human who might find out the immortals’ secrets.

As for Nile’s family, she was raised by a widowed mother after Nile’s military father died in combat when Nile was 11 years old. Because Nile cannot contact her family after joining Andy’s group, Nile feels a lot of reluctance and emotional conflict about what her life will be like from now on.

“The Old Guard” has a lot of expected violence and over-the-top stunts (some of the action scenes are more believable than others), but the movie’s real strength is conveying the “grass is always greener” frailties of human nature. Merrick and many others just like him think that people will be happier if they will never get sick and can live for centuries, while the ones who actually have the ability to live that long see it as a curse.

Through the immortals’ perspectives, “The Old Guard” shows that living for centuries can be emotionally exhausting. Death (which is feared by so many people) is a natural part of life that they haven’t been able to experience, thereby making them “eternal freaks.” However, on the flip side—as exemplified by Joe and Nicky—if two immortals find each other and become soul mates, death isn’t as easily welcomed.

Unlike other immortal “superheroes,” the superheroes in this story don’t know how long they can keep their superpowers, which can fade and eventually disappear, much like how a battery eventually loses its power. It’s that added element of the unknown that keeps things on edge. (The movie’s visual effects for the body regeneration scenes are very good and very believable.)

Theron (who is one of the producers of “The Old Guard”) has done plenty of action movies before—most notably 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and 2017’s “Atomic Blonde”—so it’s no surprise that she can light up the screen with her commanding presence. Theron’s Andy character is the most intriguing of Theron’s action characters so far because Andy literally has centuries of stories to tell about her life. Layne does an impressive job of holding her own as Andy’s very reluctant protégée. It’s great to see Layne take on such a different role from her feature-film debut in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a heartbreaking drama in which she played a loyal girlfriend of a wrongly imprisoned man.

“The Old Guard” has grittiness and bloody violence that definitely don’t make this a family-friendly superhero movie. This is also a superhero movie that  acknowledges real-world historical issues. The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and the Civil War in the United States are two examples of the many history-making events that are referenced in this story, because these superhero soldiers were involved in some way in being on the right side of history.

And unlike most other superhero movies that don’t acknowledge homophobia in the world, “The Old Guard” has a scene where Joe and Nicky confront this bigotry in a way that will make romantics applaud. Joe and Nicky’s love story is one of the reasons why fans of this movie will want a sequel. And you better believe that the ending of “The Old Guard” makes it obvious that the filmmakers plan to make “The Old Guard” into a movie series.

This superhero saga might not satisfy people who want to know how the heroes got their superpowers. And these protagonists definitely aren’t saint-like: Their underground status means they often have to collaborate with criminals to get things done, such as in a scene where Andy and Nile use a Russian drug runner’s plane to get to where they need to go. But for people who might be intrigued by a story about warriors who are still trying to figure out their lives after living and fighting battles for centuries, “The Old Guard” offers an immersive experience into that world.

Netflix premiered “The Old Guard” on July 10, 2020.

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