Every few years, movie houses get inspired to bring a new nightmarish vision of classic Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth to life, with the latest incarnation coming to you from serious Hollywood royalty.
The black-and-white film, The Tragedy of Macbeth, pairs two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington as Macbeth and four-time Oscar winner Nomadland‘s Frances McDormand as his manipulative, ambitious wife Lady Macbeth.
Premiering at the 59th New York Film Festival in September, we’ve now got the first haunting glimpses of them in a debut photo.
AS NYFF puts it: “In meticulously world-weary performances, a strikingly inward … Washington is the man who would be king, and an effortlessly Machiavellian … McDormand is his Lady, a couple driven to political assassination – and deranged by guilt – after the cunning prognostications of a trio of ‘weird sisters’.”
Shakespeare’s language and story telling is not for everyone but, as writer and director Joel Coen told The Film Stage in 2020, his reincarnation promises to bring to life the crime fiction genre in a “thriller”.
“It’s interesting how Shakespeare sort of pre-figured certain tropes in American thriller and crime literature that were common in the early part of the 20th century,” Coen said.
“Which just had to do with, in crime novels, a story centred around a husband and a wife who plotted a murder,” he continued, and described Shakespeare as a “consummate entertainer”.
He will deliver a tale of “sound and fury”, and “undoubtedly one for our moment, a frightening depiction of amoral political power-grabbing,” according to a NYFF statement.
See, it is possible to pull a 12th century Scottish tale onto our screens hundreds of years later, and make it an eternally relevant classic.
Previous incarnations of the man who would be king
There have been many interpretations of Macbeth and its killer couple, right back to Orson Welles’ 1948 adaptation.
The most recent was in 2015 with Assassin’s Creed’s Michael Fassbender and Academy-Award winning “magnetic” Marion Cotillard.
Directed by Australian Justin Kurzel (Snowtown), the movie thrilled audiences at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, with the BBC describing it as “one hell of a film”.
“Macbeth is the second film I’ve seen at Cannes in which an Australian director has plunged us into a blasted netherworld of feral violence. After Mad Max, we have Mad Mac.
Reviewer Nicholas Barber said Kurzel’s “jaw-dropping vision makes Macbeth the most significant new Shakespeare film since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet”.
There’s also Roman Polanski’s graphically violent R-rated 1971 version, filmed on location in north Wales, and starred Jon Finch and Francesca Annis; and X-Men’s Patrick Stewart in a 2010 version set in a contemporary underground labyrinth where the witches are depicted as nurses.
Don’t bother watching Sam Worthington’s 2006 depiction of the king, where the Scottish highlands are transplanted into Melbourne’s underbelly.
Coen’s ‘ticking clock’ thriller
Macbeth and his wife are often portrayed as a much younger couple struggling with childbirth and career, but McDormand, 62, and Washington, 66, are playing a couple reaching for their “last chance for glory”.
“I think a very important thing about Joel’s adaptation is that we are not calling it Macbeth,” says McDormand, who has been married to Coen since 1984 and has starred in numerous Coen-directed films, winning her first Oscar for Fargo in 1996 (Joel leaves behind his brother Ethan on this one).
“We’re calling it The Tragedy of Macbeth, which I think is an important distinction. In Joel’s adaptation, we are exploring the age of the characters and in our adaptation the Macbeths are older.
“Both Denzel and I are older than what is often cast as the Macbeths. We’re postmenopausal. We’re past childbearing age.
“So that puts a pressure on their ambition to have the crown. I think the most important distinction is that it is their last chance for glory,” she tells The Film Stage in a sit-down with Coen.
McDormand says there’s “a real suspense and a real ticking clock” for the characters they portray.
“It’s very important for my performance that they are a childless couple, but that there have been many pregnancies and perhaps children born that have died either in stillbirth or very young.”
Washington (Training Day, Fences, Malcolm X), told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019 before Macbeth began shooting, one of his first acting gigs was playing Othello on the stage.
He has never been in a Macbeth production and is the first actor of colour to portray the would-be king, according to IMBD.
While he hasn’t commented as yet on the role, he has appeared in numerous other Shakespeare plays, including Coriolanus, The Tragedy of Richard III, Julius Caesar and Much Ado About Nothing in 1993.
McDormand played Lady Mac in 2016 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Come what,come may, but with dozens of awards between these veterans of Hollywood cinema, Oscars await.