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This 'Macbeth' adaptation distills Shakespeare's tragedy to its furious essence

Joel Coen's stripped-down black and white adaptation of Macbeth is "an immaculate piece of craftsmanship". It stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.

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Other segments from the episode on December 23, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 23, 2021: Interview with Ryan Reilly; Review of Joel Coen's film adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "The Tragedy of Macbeth" stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Shakespeare's famously murderous power couple. It's the first movie that Joel Coen has written and directed without the involvement of his brother and collaborator, Ethan. The movie opens Christmas Day in select theaters and begins streaming January 14 on Apple TV+. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In "The Tragedy Of Macbeth," the director Joel Coen slashes away at Shakespeare's text, distilling every scene to its furious essence. At 105 minutes, this is a shorter Macbeth movie than most. The best-known lines are still there, of course. Is this a dagger which I see before me? - and all the rest. But the story of Macbeth's murderous rise to power is told with ruthless concentration. The visuals are as stark and stripped down as the text. Coen and his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, evoke the look of older movies with a spectral black-and-white palette and a nearly square frame. Carter Burwell's score sets an ominous mood, complemented by what sounds like an executioner's drumbeats. It's an immaculate piece of craftsmanship. The very look and feel of the movie casts a spell. At times, you might be reminded of Orson Welles' 1948 "Macbeth" and also of Akira Kurosawa's masterful 1957 retelling, "Throne Of Blood." Still, Coen's greatest influence here is Carl Theodor Dreyer, the austere Danish director who peered deep into his characters' tormented souls.

The tormented souls here are played by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and it's fascinating to watch two of our most famous actors step out of this movie's expressionist shadows. Washington and McDormand are both in their 60s, somewhat older than most actors cast as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and so there's an even greater sense of futility to their deadly plot against the king, Duncan, while he's a guest in their home. This Macbeth's reign of terror is destined to be short-lived. Not much else has changed. Macbeth does the awful deed and seizes power, setting in motion a brutal chain of violence. At one point, he turns to the three old witches who first prophesied that he would become king. All three witches are played by the English stage actor Kathryn Hunter, whose brilliant performance, with its spooky intonations and contortionist gestures, give this movie its darkest magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) Answer me to what I ask you.

KATHRYN HUNTER: (As the witches) Speak. Demand. We'll answer. Say if thou'dst rather hear it from our mouths or from our masters.

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) Call them. Let me see them.

HUNTER: (As the witches) Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Finger of birth-strangled babe, ditch-delivered by a drab.

CHANG: Coen's staging of this sequence is ingenious. Rather than showing us the witches stirring their pot, he positions them up in the rafters like birds, looming over Macbeth while the floor beneath his feet becomes a bubbling cauldron. Again and again, the director takes some of the most famous moments in the history of the theater and gives them a sense of abstraction. Macbeth's castle looks like something out of a surrealist painting, with its rows of identical archways and bold contrasts of light and dark.

As bewitching as the movie looks, the actors are never eclipsed by the production design. McDormand brings her usual steely poise to Lady Macbeth, which makes her unravelling all the more pitiable to behold. And Washington is remarkable. I had fear that this role might call forth a lot of stentorian bellowing, but until all hell breaks loose in the final act, the actor underplays beautifully. Washington plays Macbeth like an old man lost in a fog of his own bloodlust. He murmurs Shakespeare's language as though it really were welling up from someplace deep inside himself.

The rest of the superb ensemble combines actors from both stage and screen. Brendan Gleeson plays the doomed, unsuspecting Duncan with a genuinely kingly air, while Bertie Carvel brings the requisite gravity to the role of Banquo, the close friend and battle comrade whom Macbeth will betray. And I loved Corey Hawkins' youthful vitality in the role of Macduff, the rival who will help bring Macbeth's reign to its bloody end.

Like the many movies Joel Coen has made with his brother, Ethan, "The Tragedy Of Macbeth" has been directed to within an inch of its life, which leeches it of some emotional impact. Sometimes I wanted to linger longer in this dark world, to let its chill seep more fully into my bones. Still, there's no denying Coen has the right temperament for this doomiest (ph) of Shakespeare plays. Add it to the many stories he's told about men lost in tragedies of their own making.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "The Tragedy Of Macbeth." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with actor Alan Cumming, who has a new memoir, or with Faith Jones, who grew up in the sex cult the Children of God, a.k.a. The Family, which was founded by her grandfather, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews - plenty to choose from if you're looking for things to listen to over the holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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