It’s no easy trick to steal a movie from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, but in numerous moments of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Kathryn Hunter pulls off the feat. As all three of the witches who act as an eerie chorus to this Shakespeare play, her powers of transformation are miraculous: Twisting her body like a pretzel and speaking in a hellish rasp, she’s mesmerizing. She morphs into a bird, an old man, a trio; at once childlike and terrifying. The dark whisperiness of her “Macbeth doth come” is as foreboding as any tolling bell, and the spin she puts on, “Something wicked this way comes” could be bottled and sold on Halloween. It’s a unique, gorgeous performance, forming the chilly spine of this effective adaptation.
Filmed in black-and-white shadow, Coen’s version of Shakespeare’s taut tale of murder and consequences in murky Scotland here seems so creepily ethereal it practically floats in the air, with gorgeous language gliding by on the cold wind. The castle is eerily empty; the birds gather as if summoned; the fog hangs like a cloak. And within all of this grayish atmosphere is an actor’s paradise. Washington’s Macbeth is masterful; sometimes speaking in the softest of mumbles, sometimes roaring like thunder personified, always making the verse feel utterly natural. McDormand doesn’t always find the right notes for Lady Macbeth — she’s sometimes playing the character a little too big, if such a thing were possible — but the two of them create a complex chemistry; you can see, in the air between them, the young couple they once were. Corey Hawkins, so good in “In the Heights” earlier this year, makes a moving Macduff, quietly delivering after a terrible event the eloquent line, “Did heaven look on, and not take their part?” It’s not exactly cheerful holiday viewing, but this “Macbeth” is nonetheless a gift.
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