The Tragedy of Macbeth
- Director: Joel Coen
- Writer: Joel Coen
- Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson, Kathryn Hunter
Denzel Washington is 66 years old (67 shortly after this film hits theaters on Christmas Day). Frances McDormand is 64. It’s rare when an actors’ age makes such a distinct difference in an interpretation of a film, but such is just one of the many unique choices that writer and director Joel Coen has made in his Shakespeare adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Another is in the title alone. Rather than simply giving us the familiar Macbeth, Coen wants audiences, both familiar and otherwise with the Scottish play, to know that we’re about to witness the downfall of a great man. It takes more than flashy visuals, distinctive production design, and stellar performances – all of which this film has in spades – to justify remaking one of the most famous Shakespeare plays, and Coen has done so, both on and off the screen.
I don’t profess to know the inner workings of the early mind of Joel Coen (who, for the first time, is working without his brother Ethan), but Macbeth feels like the sort of story that would have a profound impact on his filmography. Joel and Ethan’s best work typically involves bad people receiving their due comeuppance, and Macbeth is essentially the urtext of those narratives. And the brothers Coen have previous experience in adapting an ancient literary text, with their 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou?. Regardless, Coen has assembled a beautifully brutal film that stands above most Shakespeare adaptations.
As mentioned, Washington and McDormand’s ages feel like a necessary subtext in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s justifications for their deeds. Though the film is shot in black and white (more on that in a moment), Washington’s beard surely has plenty of grays within it. Washington is actually the same age as Brendan Gleeson, who plays Duncan, the ill-fated King of Scotland. Coen’s vision of an aged central duo can be read as a vengeful couple, taking what they believe is rightfully theirs after a lifetime of disappointments. It also doesn’t hurt to have Washington and McDormand, two of the best actors alive, to anchor any film.
I also don’t profess to have more than a passing knowledge of Shakespeare or the hidden meanings behind his prose. I won’t be surprised if general audiences will turn away from this film because of the admittedly high barrier to entry for the uninitiated. To that I say this: The Tragedy of Macbeth is a visually unique film which allows itself to be enjoyed through its moody atmosphere alone.
Bruno Delbonnel’s black and white cinematography does wonders with light and shadows, especially within the confines of Stefan Dechant’s minimalist production design (picture it as the exact opposite of the grandiose displays in the castle in The Favourite). The box-like Academy aspect ratio harkens back to Hollywood’s early days, when Shakespeare adaptations ran aplenty. And you don’t need to be entirely familiar with German Expressionist films to appreciate this one’s stark angles and creepy shadows. Even Coen’s interpretation of the Witches (all three played with a disturbing physicality by Kathryn Hunter) plays into the drama’s supernatural trappings.
The Tragedy of Macbeth won’t be the last Shakespeare adaptation, and surely won’t be the last interpretation for modern times, like 10 Things I Hate About You or even West Side Story. But Coen’s film stands out because it excels in virtually every way that great films do.
The Tragedy of Macbeth premieres in theaters on December 25 and Apple TV+ on January 14, 2022.
- Best Actor for Denzel Washington, whom the Academy loves, feels like one of the few locks, and not just because he’s won before. Macbeth is a character that actors dream of portraying, and Washington nails Macbeth’s inner turmoil.
- The same can be said of Lady Macbeth, though Best Actress is a more crowded field for Frances McDormand to emerge into. Her win earlier this year will definitely be fresh on voters’ minds, so it’s not entirely out of the question.
- I would love to see Joel Coen as a Best Director nominee; Macbeth is nothing if not his vision brought to life. Sadly, he’s got stiffer competition from directors with original works.
- Since Best Picture will have an Academy-mandated 10 nominees this year, I can absolutely see Macbeth receiving a nomination, though the front-runner is currently another black and white period piece set in the United Kingdom.
- I’d be happy to see the film receive a Best Production Design nomination, but I have a feeling that Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch will take its spot.
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