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Review: Every beat of 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' is a cinematic flourish

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This year has had lots of stage shows leaping to the screen like "In The Heights," "West Side Story," "Cyrano." But none have boasted the star power of "The Tragedy Of Macbeth." Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand plays Shakespeare's murder-minded royals, and critic Bob Mondello says they aren't even the chief attraction.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Like everyone else, I came for the casting, but "Tragedy Of Macbeth" had me at the witches.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

KATHRYN HUNTER: (As Witches) When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain. When the hurly-burly's (ph) done.

MONDELLO: This part is under the opening credits, but when we finally see a bony, contorted figure in the snow, the singularly disquieting Kathryn Hunter, she's far more disturbing than the voices she channels. No digital tricks, a Gollum in the flesh, twisting herself into a pretzel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

HUNTER: (As Witches) Look what I have. Show me. Show me. Here I have a sailor's thumb, wracked as homeward he did come.

MONDELLO: When two 11th century Scotsmen approach from the battlefield, she draws herself up...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Foul and fair a day I have not seen.

MONDELLO: ...And presents herself as a single robed figure with two reflections in a snowbound pond. Three Witches...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

HUNTER: (As Witches) Hail Macbeth.

MONDELLO: ...Offering Macbeth and Banquo the puzzling prophecy that Macbeth will be king and Banquo will sire kings. Then she dissolves into cawing birds that Lady Macbeth can somehow hear miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Lady Macbeth) The raven himself is hoarse, that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements. Unsex me here and fill me from the crown to toe top-full of direst cruelty.

MONDELLO: Frances McDormand's ferocious queen is already half-mad with scheming to kill King Duncan when we meet her. Macbeth needs more convincing. And Denzel Washington, practiced Shakespearean that he is, approaches regicide with brooding intensity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) We will proceed no further in this business. He hath honored me of late, and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people which would be worn now in their newest gloss.

MONDELLO: Director Joel Coen looks to his inner Orson Welles, shooting the Bard's revenge tragedy in crystalline black and white, as if it were a 1930s film noir in which paranoia battles ambition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) If we should fail...

MCDORMAND: (As Lady Macbeth) We fail. But screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail.

MONDELLO: Cohen surrounds the characters with a majestic cinematic architecture of shadows, staircases, battlements, windows stretched to the sky, walls to the horizon. And when sorcerery is required...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) Is this a dagger which I see before me?

MONDELLO: It's the sort that Hitchcock would approve. One of the witches' prophecies has a forest coming to Macbeth's castle, Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. Preposterous, thinks Macbeth, until...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Gracious, my lord. I should report that which I say I saw but know not how to do it.

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) Well, say, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I looked toward Birnam, and anon, me thought, the wood began to move.

MONDELLO: And the filmmaker, having shown us an army massing with tree branches for camouflage...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) You're not. Birnam Wood, do come to Dunsinane.

MONDELLO: ...Simply opens a window.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) And now a wood comes toward Dunsinane.

MONDELLO: Every beat of "The Tragedy Of Macbeth" a cinematic flourish, a tale told by a master full of sound and monochrome fury. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.