Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand lead a visually stunning and impeccably acted (if unimaginative) Tragedy of Macbeth
Despite being one of the best received and most beloved plays in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” has been adapted for the screen far fewer times in the last century than you might think. Orson Welles played him onscreen in 1948, and Laurence Olivier attempted to begin production before funding was pulled. Roman Polanski controversially reimagined the character in 1971. Most recently, the Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard Macbeth in 2015 was seen as a decent attempt but not the most successful version of the story. Some re-imaginings (Scotland PA, for one) try to put the story in the modern world, and perhaps the coolest adaption of the play is in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Finally, in 2021, we might have the best on-screen Macbeth yet, courtesy of Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen.
The announcement of The Tragedy of Macbeth (premiering today at the opening night of the New York Film Festival) was shocking for many reasons. For one, this is the first time that Joel Coen has made a movie without the collaboration of his brother. Plus, the director and two stars have ten Oscars between them. But personally, I just was curious to see if The Scottish Play would finally be put to screen with the humor and darkness that Shakespeare deserves.
Well, I come with good news: The Tragedy of Macbeth is a true success. The cast is uniformly wonderful, with Denzel Washington delivering his best performance in the 2000s. Frances McDormand reprises a role she played on stage a few years ago, bringing a new life to Lady Macbeth with the depth you’d imagine from the Nomadland and Fargo star. The visual language of the movie is also extravagant, using the soundstages for all they’re worth. Yet for all the strengths of the film, it isn’t really a different version of Macbeth than you could see on stage.
Fans of the play know the story well: a power-hungry Scottish lord and his wife conspire to put him on the throne, with gallons of blood spilled. If you haven’t read “Macbeth” since High School, you may want to try brushing up your Shakespeare and at least check out the SparkNotes. But this is still a pretty simple story that doesn’t screw with the story. There are only a few major decisions made by Joel Coen that are worth noting. First, the characters are depicted as an older couple than have ever been shown on screen before, bringing much more depth and longevity to the characters. Second, two different characters in the film take on the lines and tropes of multiple supporting players. Alex Hassell plays a Machiavellian attendant to many kinds as Ross, while Shakespearian actress Kathryn Hunter plays a contorting and possibly mad version of the Weird Sisters. Die-hard Shakespearian scholars might also question some of the choices made by three masterful supporting performers, Corey Hawkins (MacDuff), Harry Melling (Malcolm), and Stephen Root (The Porter).
Otherwise, the film doesn’t take too many stretches. The color-blind casting of Macbeth isn’t giving much rationale beyond… well, he’s Denzel Washington! The production design and lighting of this movie are utterly unforgettable. Shot by Bruno Delbonnel in high-contrast black and white, the movie looks truly unique. The only comparison I thought of while watching the movie was the German Expressionist era of filmmaking, with the crazy lighting and empty soundstages recalling Dr. Caligari or Seventh Seal much more than a typical Shakespearian adaptation. The camera sweeps down hallways and around corners, capturing people hidden in the shadows and fighting with crows. More than once, I gasped at the realization that McDormand or Washington had just delivered pages of Shakespeare without an edit. For that alone, the movie is masterful.
One aspect of the Tragedy of Macbeth that likely will be under-discussed is the sound design and use of score. The Coens’ regular composer Carter Burwell and sound editor Skip Lievsay have designed a soundscape that terrifies. As the anxiety rachets up and we begin to fear for our protagonists’ lives, the soundtrack gets louder and more intense throughout. It’s sad that so many people will likely experience this movie on Apple TV+ at home since I doubt most TVs and computers can handle the epic scale of this movie. The black-and-white contrast will be washed out on all but the best screens, and the clamor of Shakespearian dialogue and dripping waters won’t surround you in the same way they do theatrically.
The Tragedy of Macbeth isn’t reinventing Shakespeare too much. If you’re looking for a Coen-ified “Macbeth,” you might be disappointed. But if you want to see one of the best-looking films of 2021 and a series of performances that you’ll remember for years to come, get to The Tragedy of Macbeth. And get here in theaters. The Scottish Play turned American movie is beckoning you.