THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH ½
2021, R, 105 mins.
Denzel Washington as Macbeth / Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth / Alex Hassell as Ross / Bertie Carvel as Banquo / Brendan Gleeson as Duncan / Corey Hawkins as Macduff / Harry Melling as Malcolm / Miles Anderson as Lennox / Matt Helm as Donalbain / Stephen Root as Porter / Sean Patrick Thomas as MonteithWritten and directed by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare
What an absolutely audacious move for director Joel Coen to adapt one of William Shakespeare's most legendary plays to mark his solo feature film directorial debut.
And, yes, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH does in fact mark first filmmaking venture behind the camera without his equally famous and revered sibling, which alone makes this film worthy of event film status.
first glance, one of the Coen Brothers deciding to branch out on his own
and adapt this Scotland set historical tragedy seems peculiar, but all one
has to do is look at the types of films that the Coens have been
intimately attracted to these past four decades to see that it's actually
a match made in heaven. The
Coen Brothers playbook has always gravitated towards tragically flawed
characters imprisoned by hellish circumstances in one form or another, not
to mention that their love of moody film noir has no bounds.
Tackling MACBETH and, in turn, infusing it with surrealistic crime
noir inspired visual trappings makes this adaptation of The Bard's
timeless material feel wholly unique and strikingly powerful.
and what a wonderful site it is to see the always authoritative Denzel
Washington making a return to Shakespeare on the silver screen for the
first time since the 1990s.
course, the Oscar winner plays the titular role here, and as the film
opens both Macbeth and Banquo (Betie Carvel) return to the former's
castle, but along the way they're confronted by three witches (all played
by the same actress, Kathryn Hunter, more on that in a bit), who all
darkly prophesize that Macbeth will ascend the ladder to the throne and
challeng King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) for power.
Because of his relatively proud war record, Macbeth is a man of
ambition, which is spurned on by his obsessively loyal wife in Lady
Macbeth (Coen alumni Frances McDormand), who tries as she can to
facilitate her husband's dark destiny.
When presented with a clear opportunity, Macbeth acts and brutally
slays the King (sorry, no spoiler warnings for plays hundreds of years
old), leaving the throne and all of its wealth his to claim for his very
own. Of course, political and
personal ambition get the better of him when his sanity begins to unravel
(that, and many outside of his inner circle make rightful claims as to his
legitimacy to the throne as well). Driven
mad and becoming unstably paranoid, Macbeth works overtime to cover up his
criminal act, but when a King Duncan loyal underline in Macduff (Corey
Hawkins) starts sniffing around and smells a proverbial rat he decides to
challenge Macbeth to what will unavoidably become a bloody duel to end the
latter's reign and restore order and respect to the throne.
think that one of the inherent problems with adapting any of Shakespeare's
work to the silver screen is that there have been so many over the past
century that any new fangled appropriation of his plays has to really pull
out all of the creative stops to make itself stand proudly apart (and
while not bastardizing the material and potentially alienating viewers
familiar with Shakespeare's work on the page).
With the case of MACBETH, though, movie adaptations are not a dime
a dozen. There was the atmospheric Roman Polanski version from the
early 70s, not to mentioned the infamously troubled Orson Welles version
from 1948. Most recently, we
were given director Justin Kurzel's
extraordinarily stylish and forebodingly moody version with
Michael Fassbender (which, for my money still remains one of the best
versions ever). Coen's
challenge here is a daunting one, to say the least, and his iteration of
MACBETH doesn't completely or radically reinvent the wheel as far as film
versions of Shakespeare go, but his bravura aesthetic choices here make his
iteration simmer with considerably creepy and dreamlike potency.
true calling card here is the very look of this film.
Avoiding shooting on location in just about every respect, Coen
teamed up with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer
Stefan Dechant to film all of THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (a) on sound stages
and (b) in black and white and in the old square Academy 1.33:1 ratio.
I think the reason for these choices is simple: Coen and company
are not aiming for complete verisimilitude, but rather for an
impressionistic take on this well worn material.
Plus, the minimalist approach here to film on stages (and the
aspect ratio of choice and lack of color stock) harkens back to Hollywood
of yesteryear when filmmakers had to be innovative with limited controlled
environments as opposed to shooting in the unpredictable wild.
Nothing looks real, per se, in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, but
that's what makes it so intoxicating as a pure visual odyssey.
The black and white palette here and the composition and editorial
choices are like a healthy marriage between Ingmar Bergman and Fritz Lang,
which have an unsettling and disorienting urgency to them.
Compared directly to Kurzel's action and battle heavy epic
interpretation, Coen's MACBETH is more ethereally dreamlike and mysterious;
its less is more artifice, it could be argued, allows for more
it's not just the look that sells THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, but how Coen and
his team find fresh ways to bring a real sense of dread to some of the
most familiar moments in all of Shakespeare.
Take, for example, the fascinating choice here to have Kathryn
Hunter play all of the witches. Early
on she comes off as more as a contorting, gremlin-like monster, but as the
film evolves so do the witches; their otherworldly appearance and
disturbing mannerisms mesh perfectly with the whole tone that Coen is
aiming for here. These
witches should be pure nightmare fuel as entities that traumatize Macbeth,
and the interpretation here is chillingly spot-on, in my books.
Then consider Coen's handling of the Macbeth's murder of the King,
and here the staging and ultimate kill is swiftly barbaric and brutally
effective. Coen shoots so
tightly on both Washington and Gleeson that it makes viewers unhealthily
feel like close proximity witnesses to this very foul deed.
Even more obligatory sequences like the aforementioned climatic
duel are given a new lease on life because of Coen's insistence on not
framing it like every other movie duel that we're all abundantly familiar
would hardly have to emphasize that a Shakespeare adaptation that's an
utter embarrassment of visual riches would be rendered as pure window
dressing without capable actors leading the charge.
How much better could we all possibly get than multiple Academy
Award winners like Washington and McDormand?
Washington himself has always had such a magnetic and commanding
screen presence that makes him a perfect fit for Shakespeare; he's
reliably stalwart as Macbeth, showing him as obviously older than other
interpretations, but just as driven to unbridled madness as any that came
before. There's not a false
note in his work here, and ditto for McDormand playing the always juicy
role of the aggressively instigating Lady Macbeth.
She submerges herself into this master manipulator and gives this
version of Lady Macbeth a few more hidden layers than we've been given
before. One of the negative
side effects of this dynamic duo thespian powerhouse here is that it has
the potential to overshadow the other actors, but I was surprised by how
democratic THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH was when it came to the stellar
supporting performances and exceptionally well oiled and assembled cast.
Perhaps my favorite of all is the inspired casting of Stephen Root
as Porter the gate keeper, who inhabits his scenes so deceptively well
that I almost wished that he was in it more.