William Shakespeare’s timeless play Macbeth has been adapted to film several times over the years, from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Throne of Blood and Orson Welles’ 1948 adaptation to Justin Kurzel’s dreamlike retelling that starred Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in 2015. Now Joel Coen takes a stab at bringing the tragedy to the silver screen in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and the results are as great as one would expect from the more dramatic half of the Coen Brothers thanks to striking high-contrast cinematography, practical art direction and set decoration, and captivating performances from its two leads.
The Tragedy of Macbeth retells Shakespeare’s classic tale that’s as old as time: fresh after a victory in a battle against the united armies of Ireland and Norway, Scottish generals Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) are met by Three Witches (Kathryn Hunter) who tell Macbeth of a prophecy that sees him rise in the ranks from Thane of Glavis to the Thane of Cawdor, and finally, the King of Scotland.
This revelation puzzles Macbeth, but upon receiving the position of Thane of Cawdor from King of Scotland Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) with Thane of Fife, Macduff (Corey Hawkins) as a witness, he ruminates over the legitimacy of the witches’ ominous forecasts, but it’s his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) that convinces him to pursue more power by killing King Duncan, but his uncertainty continues to cloud his mind as he privately longs to gain his higher standing without sacrificing his humanity.
In his first film sans his brother Ethan, Joel Coen adapts Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy with direction that’s ominous in tone and full of constant existential dread, which comes through predominantly in the gorgeous black and white cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel. After earning an Academy Award nomination for lensing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Delbonnel is in awards season form once again through a haunting use of high-contrast that often forebodes a harrowing future for the characters involved.
An example comes in a moment where Banquo soliloquies to himself and only himself underneath a lone spotlight, surrounded in the birds-eye view establishing shot by a vast darkness. The high-contrast look of The Tragedy of Macbeth further emphasizes the duality of man in a scene where Lady Macbeth welcomes King Duncan and his servants to their manor, where a shadow splits coverage of her body right down the middle.
Coen has also paid homage several times throughout his filmmaking career to the days of classical Hollywood, from the screwball influences in The Hudsucker Proxy to the joyously choreographed musical numbers in Hail, Caesar!, and he does so once again with The Tragedy of Macbeth, as the film’s visual splendor extends further into its production design. The simple practicality that comes with the look of each set, grouped with the monochromatic colors and 4:3 aspect ratio transports audiences back in time, making Coen’s adaptation look more like a grand, unsettling epic from the 1930s.
The performances are also as electric as the visuals; Frances McDormand delivers her Shakespearean dialogue with a cadence that comes off with unbelievable naturalism, while Denzel Washington recites Macbeth’s monologues with dramatic inquisition and curiosity as he maneuvers down the labyrinth of columns that make up his castle’s hallways in the beginning, until his character progression results in him commanding the screen in a presence that’s significantly more menacing and ruthless.
As far as the dialogue is concerned, the Shakespearean prose is delivered really fast by the entire ensemble of The Tragedy of Macbeth, to the point where there’s little time for audiences to neither digest The Bard’s eloquent prose nor take in the harrowing nature of major beats in the story. But the striking mood of its sets and the nuances from the stellar cast do enough visually to keep viewers abreast of the developments in the narrative.
And that’s a true testament to Joel Coen’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker as well as the acting ensemble’s phenomenal talents, because his retelling of Macbeth stands on its own in the pantheon of the source material’s film adaptations. Audiences will ultimately feel like they’ve traveled in time to an era of film history where artists had to think of practical ways to build the worlds of their stories. After a year of uncertainty over the future of theaters and cinema as an art form, The Tragedy of Macbeth reminds its spectators of cinema’s power, as well as its ability to use minimalism in creating the grandest of epics. This is one of the year’s best films.