Review by Sean Boelman
The cinema is no stranger to Shakespeare adaptations, as many filmmakers over the years have attempted to bring the work of the Bard to the screen with varying degrees of success. It’s a difficult line to toy — being faithful to the source material while still interpreting it for a modern audience — and Joel Coen does it perfectly with his version of “The Scottish Play”.
The movie tells Shakespeare’s classic story of a Scottish lord who receives a vision of three witches who tell him he is destined to become King, causing him to become a tyrant mad with power. It’s a story that has been done many times before, both directly and through reimaginings like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, and Coen’s take on the work is direct in terms of scripting but artistically distinctive.
One of the most distinctive things about this play in particular is Shakespeare’s breakneck pacing, and Coen preserves that. There aren’t many subplots to be found, and so the audience is mesmerized as Coen weaves Shakespeare’s intricate web of double-crosses and deceit. The only scene which strays from this line is the perplexing Porter scene, brought to life here hexingly by Stephen Root.
In what was a brilliant decision, Coen does not modernize the Shakespearean language whatsoever, nor does he try to make the themes feel new. But it is not the way in which it is written that the film is distinctive, but the way in which it is directed. Everything about the movie is done as if it was a psychological horror, which will get audiences invested in the story.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is the way in which it is shot by Coen. Much of the movie was shot on soundstages, which gives it a surreal, artificial look. The result is a nightmarish feel that is more haunting than any other adaptation of this work has been. And the sound design is certainly among the best of the year.
With how closely Coen sticks to the text, the characters work as well as they ever do. The Thane of Glamis is a wonderfully complex character, morphing from valiant hero to detestable tyrant. And while Denzel Washignton may have been an unorthodox choice for the character given that he is older than usual for those who portray the Thane, he brings an extraordinary vigor to the character.
The ensemble of the film is also exceptional. Frances McDormand gives an unhinged, sweeping performance as the Lady, but it’s rousing in every sense of the word. Corey Hawkins surprisingly steals the show as Macduff, absolutely radiating cool. And other notable turns come from Alex Hassell, Brendan Gleeson, and Harry Melling.
With his adaptation of such an iconic work, Joel Coen has managed to stick to what everyone knows while still making it feel unique with his style. It’s a truly mesmerizing watch, and one of the finest Shakespeare films of all time.
Joel Coen’s version of “The Scottish Play” hits theaters on December 25 and Apple TV+ on January 14.