When you’re watching a movie like The Tragedy of Macbeth that’s headlined by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, it can be easy to wonder how on Earth any other performer in the project’s cast will leave an impression. That’s no slam on the other actors in Macbeth, but rather a comment on just how commanding and memorable Washington and McDormand are as actors. But within this production’s cast, another actor not only manages to shine but achieves the remarkable accomplishment of standing out as the best actor in the whole movie. This incredible honor goes to Kathryn Hunter, who accomplishes so much in her idiosyncratic portrayal of the story’s crucial character, the Witches.
Kathryn Hunter may register as an unknown name, an understandable response given that her prior film acting credits to The Tragedy of Macbeth are minimal. (She did play Mrs. Squibb in the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). However, Hunter is a veteran of stage acting, particularly in West End theater productions that have garnered her acclaim. Though she may not be as immediately familiar to American moviegoers as Washington or McDormand, she’s also got plenty of impressive performances under her belt, making her a natural choice to go toe-to-toe with titans like these two.
It also means Hunter is prepared to offer something new in a role that’s been handled by countless other actors in the deluge of Macbeth film adaptations that have been released over the years. Even with her astonishing resume, it would be easy to believe Hunter couldn’t offer something new in portraying the Witches. The screenplay for this adaptation, penned by Joel Coen, opts to confront this potential issue head-on by making Hunter’s first scene one immediately distinctive compared to other Macbeth movies. Specifically, this sequence establishes that the trio of Witches from William Shakespeare’s original text have largely been condensed to one woman.
Now, the original incarnation of the trio of witches does make brief appearances throughout The Tragedy of Macbeth in the reflections of water or crouching atop perches in Macbeth’s quarters. Primarily, though, Hunter is alone in portraying the Witches, a take that fits right in with the sparse nature of The Tragedy of Macbeth’s visuals (it also evokes a similar choice in Akira Kurosawa’s quasi-Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood). The benefits of this choice regarding Hunter’s performance are made instantly apparent, as the viewer is introduced to Hunter’s solitary witch sitting alone. Here, the dialogue of all three witches has been squashed together into one character’s mouth, with Hunter delivering each word as an unnerving stream of consciousness, a flood of words that cannot be stopped.
The sight of her engaging in a conversation with herself is made eerier by Hunter’s raspy vocals, which sounds less like a voice belonging to a human being than a noise you’d hear from the bottom of a deep dark pit. Right away, the depiction of the Witches in other Macbeth movies leaves your mind and that’s before Hunter utilizes her contortionist abilities to further distinguish her take on this character. This mic-drop of an introductory sequence blows all conceptions of how the Macbeth witches should speak, move, or even how many there needs to be. The bold acting choices of Hunter are immediately apparent.
As the film goes on, an extra gift of letting Hunter be the sole representative of the Witches also becomes noticeable. Traditionally, this trio of Witches has each member of the group portrayed by a different actor, which can yield its own interesting rewards. However, for this iteration, simplifying things down to just one actor means that Hunter doesn’t have to yield her screentime to two other people. With all this extra space and all the dialogue from this trio belonging to her, she’s given even more time to leave an impression on the audience. Thankfully, Hunter manages to make use of every second she’s on-screen.
There’s also an otherworldly and invulnerable aura to Hunter’s performance that makes her such an interesting contrast to The Tragedy of Macbeth’s interpretations of all these other characters. When we meet Hunter’s witch, she’s able to move her body in tremendous ways without even flinching. Meanwhile, she talks of hideous subjects like murder and speaks to powerful figures like the eventual King Macbeth with similar fearlessness. Hunter’s dialogue deliveries and physicality make her a compelling departure from everyone else in this story. Deceit defines nearly all characters in Macbeth, yet Hunter’s Witch, both in her dialogue and in her actions, is all about being her uninhibited self.
There’s always been a pervasive aura of doom in the pages of Macbeth, but Joel Coen’s interpretation of this material ramps that quality up to 11. The finite nature of everyone’s existence is always on the character’s minds, while filmmaking details like the monochromatic color palette and minimal score elevate the sorrow of development like Lady Macbeth’s eventual insanity. Compared to these brutal depictions of human folly and vulnerability, Hunter’s Witch stands out all the more as a compelling aberration. Her performance establishes this character as eerily evasive of the everyday shortcomings that plague everyone else in the cast.
Best of all, Hunter flourishes within the uniquely stripped-down style of The Tragedy of Macbeth, which evokes black-box theater productions more than a lavish movie set. Working within these confines could be a challenge for many actors, but Hunter, with her long experience in theater and with Shakespeare productions, seems to thrive in this environment. Within this intimate approach to storytelling, she knows just how to delicately thread the needle between leaving an impression and maintaining a critically subdued nature.
Her Witch will almost certainly crawl into your nightmares, but she also doesn’t disrupt the quietly ominous tone of the whole piece by chewing the scenery. Her deft navigation of The Tragedy of Macbeth’s unique tone means she’s even capable of being the only principal actor in the cast who takes on multiple roles (she also portrays the figure Old Man), a feat she’s able to accomplish without this double-dipped casting coming off as distracting. A lifetime of work in the world of stage productions, which often function within limited means, pays off handsomely with how effortlessly Hunter excels in The Tragedy of Macbeth’s barren world.
With all these qualities and more at her back, it’s no surprise if many people walk away from The Tragedy of Macbeth talking about how impressively Hunter breathed new life into the role of the Witches. Of course, Washington and McDormand also deliver superb work in their respective lead roles, but incredibly, their memorable performances aren’t the standout parts of this Joel Coen motion picture. As the Bard himself wrote, “what’s done cannot be undone,” and what Hunter has done in The Tragedy of Macbeth is deliver a performance that manages to exceed the work of legends like Washington and McDormand.