From modern interpretations to religiously stalwart presentations, the works of Shakespeare have been brought to audiences in many forms. One of his most well known works, Macbeth, has seen its own share of attempts. In his first film without his brother Ethan, Joel Coen has created what many people might end up deeming, the best film adaptation of The Scottish Play.
Upon returning from the battlefield after their victory in their war with Norway, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) chance by an oracle (don’t worry, they didn’t get rid of the witches, but this is something that needs to be discussed away from this description) that tells Macbeth of a prophecy that he will be King of Scotland. Once home, he is persuaded by his wife, Lady Macbeth (Francis McDormand) to murder the king, expediting Macbeth’s road to the throne. After the deed is done though, the doubts and consequences of their actions start unfurling.
Visually haunting and breathtakingly striking, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like it can’t do anything wrong. At first, it is a little jarring to hear all the actors take on the roles in their own accents. But when you’re swept into a very stage like presentation that is still gloriously cinematic in its 4:3 presentation, the unleveled accent issue melts away. If this was a company of Scottish, or even British actors with Denzel stuck in the middle with the only American accent…then I’d say you’d have a valid reason to question the choice. But with a wide array of regional dialects and timbers all crossing at the same time, it oddly works.
Shockingly, this presentation of Macbeth, while delivered through the original text (no modern dialogue here), is brief and somewhat an abridged version of the play. Clocking in under two hours at only 105 minutes, those unfamiliar with the story might feel a bit lost. While the pieces are all there, some characters are never fully introduced with names even. The Tragedy of Macbeth takes the stance that you already know the story. Which really is apt, as any Shakespeare enthusiast who pays to see a new stage production is going with the full exception of seeing how the cast envisions each character.
While every performance at hand is deftly portrayed, I dare say it isn’t Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand that put forth the best performances. Yes, they’re wonderful, just as you’d expect. But in comparison to Washington’s more frantic, unhinged moments (it’s a staple of playing Macbeth), the more subdued and subtle styles of Bertie Carvel and Corey Hawkins as Banquo and Macduff respectively, are more impressive.
The big show stealer though is Kathryn Hunter as the witch/witches. In a very Bergman-esque presentation, it is just Kathryn Hunter who deliveries a singular performance as a witch, with the two other witches only appearing as forms that share Hunter’s voice in chorus. Her introduction alone is worth the price of admission. The physicality of her movements paired with the haunting delivery of her twisted prophecy is jaw dropping. If you don’t sink in your seat and think to yourself, “This is brilliant,” as her arms flap by her side as her sisters first appear…you’ve got brain damage.
This is a cinematic romp that still feels like its on a stage. The lighting design and sets are to be marveled. While the Coen’s have always delivered beautiful, well shot films, The Tragedy of Macbeth is on another level. Both minimal and elaborate at the same time, there is not an inch of the screen that isn’t filled with brilliance the entire time. This is a work of art that will be studied in the film school classes of the future.
The Tragedy of Macbeth through the eyes of Joel Coen isn’t going to revolutionize the world of Shakespeare for the world. Young kids who never understood it, or those with no previous interest in seeing Shakespeare that isn’t modernized to a high school aren’t going to change their feelings about classic plays if they search out this version of Macbeth. Stout historians too, might take issue with the cuts made within the plot. One thing is for sure though, Joel Coen hasn’t lost a step and is still one of, if not the greatest American filmmaker, ever.
Final Grade: A-