Directed by: Joel Coen
Premise: An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play. A Scottish nobleman (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Francis McDormand) plan to seize power by murdering the king.
What Works: The Tragedy of MacBeth is one of William Shakespeare’s darkest plays and the 2021 film approaches the material with that in mind. Adaptations of stage plays sometimes suffer from being too theatrical. The camerawork tends to be static and the performances are sometimes too big with the actors projecting as though they are on stage. Joel Coen’s adaptation of MacBeth does not make those mistakes. Shakespeare’s play is intact but Coen brings a distinctly cinematic approach to the material. The film is shot with an austere style. Everything about this film is stripped down. The sets are bare and shot in high contrast black and white cinematography. The filmmakers also use fog and mist in ways that enhance the mysterious and fantastical elements of the source material. This version of MacBeth often looks like the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s and the Universal monster films of the 1930s and 40s and like those pictures this MacBeth has a timeless visual style. The look is cold and brutal in a way that’s appropriate to the story. The performances are impressively accessible. The film is led by Denzel Washington in the title role and Francis McDormand is cast as Lady MacBeth. This is one of Washington’s best performances. His line readings are precise; Washington delivers seventeenth century dialogue in a cadence that sounds contemporary and natural. The film is small and intimate and Washington scales his performance to fit the cinematic approach. McDormand does the same and both lead actors foreground their characters’ guilt. MacBeth is about a couple who make a terrible decision and the style of the movie and the performances by the actors make those emotional themes clear even for viewers who may not be familiar with Shakespeare’s play.
What Doesn’t: The Tragedy of MacBeth is set in Scotland and that location is specific to the story. However, this adaptation does not concern itself with the specificity of place. That’s most evident among the actors who come from a variety of backgrounds, many of them American, and they mostly speak in their natural accents. The cornucopia of different nationalities generally works for this version of MacBeth because of the film’s unique visual style. But the sparse filmmaking and the international cast do diminish this version’s sense of place.
DVD extras: Available on Apple TV.
Bottom Line: 2021’s The Tragedy of MacBeth is an impressive adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. The movie is distinctly different from any recent Shakespeare adaptation and its raw approach makes this material accessible and contemporary.
Episode: #888 (January 23, 2022)