Producers: Joel Coen, Frances McDormand and Robert Graf   Director: Joel Coen   Screenplay: Joel Coen   Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson, Lucas Barker, Stephen Root, Robert Gilbert, Ethan Hutchison, James Udom, Richard Short, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ralph Ineson and Jefferson Mays   Distributor: A24 Films/Apple+

Grade: B-

Few of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted for the screen as often as “Macbeth.”  (By one reckoning only “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” have been filmed more frequently, though some of the versions are very loose.)   Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play is often visually striking, but the poetry that remains in the piece is expressed almost exclusively in the images, rather than the words. 

Shot in beautiful black-and-white, and the boxy 4:3 Academy format, by Bruno Delbonnel, and with a production design by Stefan Dechant that makes expressionist use of walls, stairs, windows, and a harsh landscape, as well as apt costumes by Mary Zophres, Coen’s “Macbeth” is often bleakly stunning to look at; and its use of avian imagery is not inappropriate, although there are so many birds about that you might think you were watching a picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  There are stumbles even here, though: the composition of Birnam Wood’s movement to Dunsinane is almost comically small-scaled, as are the brief battle scenes (no Wellesian brilliance here).   

Still, the visuals are imaginative—sometimes too much so.  It’s in the aural area that this “Macbeth” stumbles.  While the music score by Carter Burwell, along with the sound design, is eerily effective and Coen’s abridgement, and occasional alteration, of the text are substantial (he keeps the full title even as he shortens the play) but defensible, the film falters in simple terms of verbal delivery.

It’s not that Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, as Lord and Lady Macbeth, don’t speak the lines Coen gives them with commitment.  Nor is it fatal that that neither attempts an accent of any sort; phony accents would be more distracting than helpful.  But why then surround them, and Corey Hawkins, who makes a strong Macduff, with a supporting cast composed largely of British actors?  It’s not the choice to use unaccented voices that’s harmful; it’s the jarring differences in delivery, since it suggests nothing consistent about distinctions among the characters.

And while all three of the stars delivers their lines capably enough, none seems very attentive to the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse.  Their declamations are intense but, especially in Washington’s case, rushed, so that much of the grandeur is lost despite the actor’s natural magnetism; McDormand, by contrast, offers a portrayal of his wife that, by contrast, is a bit wan in terms of expression, despite her stated belief that she has a special affinity for the role. 

Hawkins’ essential virility, meanwhile, makes his Macduff fairly powerful, despite some early timidity.  He’s helped by Moses Ingram’s passionate treatment of her single scene as his doomed wife, to which he can react with equally passionate grief, and by Coen’s decision to stage the confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff on a castle parapet, which allows for a swordfight that’s satisfying, even if it’s done in a modern swashbuckling way and ends with a gruesome flourish that might better have been excised.  (The earlier combat between Macbeth and Richard Short’s Siward, on the other hand, is dispensed with quickly.)  The “don’t dawdle” editing by Lucian Johnston and Reginald Jaynes (the latter a pseudonym for Coen) also contributes to the film’s propulsive momentum.     

Of the supporting cast, Brendan Gleeson hasn’t much time to impress as Duncan before the king is dispatched, but Harry Melling manages to give his son Malcolm some spine in the final act.  Even more effective as Bertie Carvel, who makes loyal Banquo a nuanced figure and Alex Hassell, whose Ross is a figure of studied ambiguity, always assessing where his interests lie.  Stephen Root, an old Coen hand, is given a plum cameo as the porter and enjoys it to the hilt.  And Kathryn Hunter is eerily effective as the witches, though her scenes are undercut by the periodic decision to allow Alex Leme and Michael Huber’s visual effects to take center stage, to the detriment of the performance.  

It’s impossible for “Macbeth” not to have an impact, even in an imperfect production.  Nor is a version of the play starring as commanding a presence as Denzel Washington to be easily dismissed, even if the role does not fit him like a glove.  But some of the earlier films based on the Scottish play are superior to this one, Joel Coen’s first solo directing effort, his brother Ethan having chosen to step away from filmmaking (one hopes only temporarily) for other pursuits.