My English teacher will hate me for this, but then she already knows: me and the works of William Shakespeare have never gotten along. Whatever others may see in his (assuming he actually wrote this stuff, which I’m not convinced of) long-winded, flowery words they’ve rarely struck a chord with me. And that goes for the many…oh so many, adaptations. The only way for them to stand out is to do something new, to modernize, to conceptualize them in a different way than the writer originally intended. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is about as straight-forward as they come. If you know each line by heart you’ll probably recite them as the film goes along. But a recitation is all this version of Macbeth is. The soul is, sadly, long gone.
Coen, directing for the first time without his brother Ethan, leans hard on his two stars. And when those stars are Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, arguably the two greatest actors alive today, who can blame him? Denzel gives a towering performance as the ambitious title warrior, who, urged on by a dark prophecy by three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter), aims for the Scottish throne. There will be a blood trail left in his wake by the time Macbeth is done, further emboldened by his fearsome, manipulative wife Lady Macbeth.
Shot in foreboding black & white in a 4:3 aspect ratio, The Tragedy of Macbeth is shrouded in ominous fog and mysterious shadow. This version of Macbeth’s Scotland is as bleak as any captured on screen, and hits you with an overwhelming sense of dread. It’s interesting to see Coen in his this first solo outing, as many of he and his brother’s films have pulled liberally from the works of Shakespeare. He shoots the Bard as if he were shooting another of his comedies; lots of up-close framing and awkward angles, but it works.
The problem is that, other than Washington who brings gigantic “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” energy to the role of Macbeth, everyone else might as well be reading from a cue card. Shockingly, that goes for McDormand, too. She’s strangely bland here as one of the most infamously colorful figures in history. Marion Cotillard in Justin Kurzel’s ponderous Macbeth in 2015 brought more fire. Others in the cast, including Corey Hawkins as the heroic Macduff, Bertie Carvel as the doomed Banquo, and Brendan Gleeson as the King, are solid if unmemorable.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is well-constructed and faithful to the source material. If you love the Bard and this ultimate story of power corrupted then enjoy saying the words right along with the cast. But when the next adaptation comes along, and it will happen sooner rather than later, this one will be forgotten like so many others.
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in theaters on Christmas Day, then streams on AppleTV + beginning January 14th 2022.