NEW YORK — Did you really think “The Tragedy of Macbeth” would be anything less than fantastic?
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are at the top of their game in the chilling new adaptation of the William Shakespeare play, written and directed by Joel Coen (of Coen Brothers fame, in his first big-screen outing without brother Ethan).
The drama, which opens the New York Film Festival (running Friday through Oct. 10), pays homage to the likes of Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman: Shot in arresting black and white, the Oscar-ready film makes no attempts to hide that it was performed almost entirely on a soundstage, complete with labyrinthine castles and foggy Scottish moors.
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Washington, of course, plays Macbeth, a weary army general in the twilight of his life who, at the urging of his wife Lady Macbeth (McDormand), secretly plots to kill King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in an attempt to wrest the Scottish throne. Macbeth becomes increasingly frightened and guilty as he is surrounded by blood and an ever-growing number of bodies.
At 66 years old, Washington is older than most actors typically cast as Macbeth, bringing new shades of desperation, rage and regret to the tortured character, who has memorably been played on stage and screen by Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Branagh and Michael Fassbender. McDormand, 64 is similar to McDormand but finds unexpected tenderness in Lady Macbeth. They know that killing Duncan is their last chance at power.
“This is it. This is the last go-round (for them),” Washington explained at a post-screening Q&A for journalists Friday afternoon, ahead of the film’s world premiere that night. “They’ve been stepped over by kings and they want it. And we understand that.”
Washington was joined by Coen, McDormand and co-stars Bertie Carvel, Moses Ingram and Harry Melling during the animated, sometimes emotional panel. At one point, McDormand said she thinks Shakespeare would be “pleased” by their adaptation. Minutes later, her phone went off mid-conversation.
“Is that Willy (Shakespeare) on the phone?” Washington joked, laughing as McDormand pulled an old flip phone out of her handbag.
The three-time best actress Oscar winner, who picked up her latest trophy for “Nomadland” in April, previously played Lady Macbeth on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., in 2016. But she first performed the character’s famous sleepwalking scene as a 14-year-old in English class – a driving factor in her wanting to become an actor.
“I’ve basically been practicing and preparing for it for 50 years,” McDormand said. “This is a perfect punctuation point for me, in so many ways.
“When I hear our company talk – this is another thing about being an elder – I just get choked up over and over again,” McDormand continued. “I can’t believe we did this …,” she stopped, holding back tears as Washington clasped her hand.
Washington, a two-time Oscar winner himself, is also a Shakespeare veteran. He appeared in the 1993 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” and performed in “Othello,” “Richard III” and “Julius Caesar” on the New York stage.
Coming back to the Bard now is “the ultimate challenge, it’s the ultimate reward,” Washington said. “It’s where I started and where I want to finish.”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” has so far received almost across-the-board raves from critics. It opens in theaters Dec. 25, before streaming on Apple TV+ Jan. 14, 2022.