Joel Coen’s take on Shakespeare appears simultaneously as the grandest and minimalist of adaptations to date. It boasts a fantastic ensemble cast who all deliver the old text with great vigor. It’s staged in a prestige glaze of black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. It features simplistic sets that are barely visible as the haze and fog drown out the background. In a movie landscape with so many overblown spectacles, there’s something rather unique about seeing a film very simplistic in its visuals yet towering with strong performances.
The story doesn’t feature much revision from the classic play. It’s still a medieval tale of the rise and fall of the conflicted Lord Macbeth, magnificently performed by Denzel Washington. There is some stylish flair, however, to the foreboding presence of the witches who warn of Macbeth’s future. Kathryn Hunter plays all three witches in a surreal manner. Sometimes she’s one person with three personalities. Sometimes the other witches exist in the shadows. Other times she will disappear into a flock of crows. Her presence in her dark clothing that covers her body from head to toe gives off a perfectly eerie vibe, sure to evoke recalls of The Seventh Seal.
Washington is no stranger to playing aggressive and manipulative characters with ease and slides into the role of Macbeth so smoothly. You can’t help but wonder that if Coen veered away from the old English delivery just how much more compelling a performance he could deliver. The film almost seems like a challenge in this regard, where all the actors have to stick to the script, word for word, while still delivering great performances. On that level, the film succeeds with all involved.
Frances McDormand has great power in her portrayal of the vicious and crazed Lady Macbeth. Corey Hawkins has a lot of power as Macduff. Brendan Gleeson brings his usual prestige appeal to the role of the unfortunate King Duncan. Harry Melling is also perfectly cast as the bitter Malcolm. They’re all so damn good in this film for being so confined by the playwright.
The bold contrast in how the film is shot makes for some dazzlingly strong scenes. The great use of birds, branches, and smoke creates this otherworldly experience for the setting of old Scotland. The cinematography creates scenes that feel uneasy yet focused on basking the darkness of a kingdom doomed to betrayals and egos. The exceptional performances placed over them make for an enticing picture that one might not expect out of Coen.
It may come as a bit of a surprise that a Coen brother decided to take a whack at Macbeth. It almost seemed like the movie was made on a bet, as if to see just how artful and faithful a big-screen depiction of the classic story could be produced. Thinking back on his filmography, however, it becomes clear that this type of story is well suited for Coen’s contemplation on complex and failing figures. He once joked with his brother that the closest they’d come to an adaptation was the Odyssey somewhat with O Brother Where Art Thou. For taking a dive into one of the most revered of written and performed works, he succeeds with flying colors.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is every bit the gorgeous and profound delivery one would expect for Joel Coen’s vision of the Shakespeare play. It dazzles the eyes but doesn’t distract. It is engrossed with performances that hold well amid minimal settings. It is most certainly not going to be everyone’s film, especially if you find yourself struggling to keep up with the fast-paced performances of rapid-fire old English. On its merits of cinematography and acting alone, it’s a remarkable picture.