Shakespeare film adaptations are nothing new, as there have been an abundance of adaptations throughout the years. One of the most popular Shakespeare plays that has been adapted to film is Macbeth, which has had many film adaptations starting with the 1908 silent film. The newest addition to the Macbeth adaptation pile is Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. For those unfamiliar with Macbeth, the play (and this film), follows the titular character (Denzel Washington) and his ascent to the throne with the help of his Lady (Frances McDormand) of Scotland. Once he is King, Macbeth descends into madness and becomes a tyrant, causing a huge mutiny and attack from both England and Scotland, resulting in his downfall and eventual death.
The film is directed and written by Joel Coen and is arguably one of the best Macbeth cinematic adaptations that has ever been made thanks to Coen’s minimalist approach. The film is shot in black and white, but not only does this serve as a stylistic decision, it also ensures that the focus is on the text rather than the opulence. Coen’s adaptation is faithful to the play and his direction has clear focus on the characters. His respect for the source material is abundantly clear and the decision to have the actors speak in their original accents was a great choice as it means that more focus can be put on the words.
Denzel Washington leads as the titular character and completely embodies Macbeth through his rise and fall. What makes Washington such an effective Macbeth is that he provides the intensity and command required in such a role. Washington’s performance has been grossly overlooked this awards season with most award bodies only focusing on Will Smith in King Richard and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. What Washington manages to achieve in this film is a deeply gravitating performance that draws you in from the moment he appears until the character’s eventual demise. The scene in which Macbeth ponders whether to go through with the murder of the King is among the highlights in the film.
You can’t have an effective adaptation of Macbeth without choosing a brilliant actress to portray Lady Macbeth. Who else was Joel Coen going to select except the incomparable Frances McDormand? McDormand is no stranger to Shakespeare, having played Lady Macbeth in 2016. Due to the dynamic shifts between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it is essential to have two actors who are able to carry off commanding and controlled performances. McDormand proves to be a perfect pairing for Washington’s Macbeth as she has an all-knowing presence about her. She perfectly encapsulates Lady Macbeth’s story arc from her manipulative methods in order to gain power through her husband through to her descent into madness. The scene in which she is sleepwalking around the castle and discussing the murder is eerie and ventures into horror territory thanks to the unpredictability of McDormand’s performance.
In one of the most captivating performances is Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three Witches and the Old Man. Hunter is a phenomenal actress who embodies the weirdness and otherness in the characters. Macbeth contains some of the most well-known Shakespeare quotes and a lot of them are delivered by Hunter. The scene in which the Witches visit Macbeth for the second time perfectly encapsulates the subtly and brilliance of Hunter’s performance, not relying on the bells and whistles that come with a lot of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations. Hunter’s acting ability comes through without any extra help, and it’s such a shame that her performance was overlooked during the mainstream awards.
The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is stunning and makes use of the various locations in the film. Despite the minimalism in the production design, Delbonnel manages to capture the world perfectly. Despite the use of numerous locations, there are many scenes in which there is a pinpoint focus on the characters themselves rather than their surroundings in order to draw in that focus. However, this doesn’t mean that Delbonnel isn’t able to incorporate innovative shots that make the film beautiful to watch. The scene in which Lady Macbeth is reciting a letter that Macbeth has sent her before setting fire to it is brilliantly shot, ending with the letter in flames as it floats away in the sky. The scenes in which the Witches visit Macbeth are both among the best scenes in the film thanks to their eeriness and simplicity, especially the second visit.
One of the best aspects of the film is the production design by Stefan Dechant, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his beautiful work on the film. The production design is innovative and works beautifully in the film, making use of the space and light in the film. Macbeth’s castle is large and empty, showing off the affluence and regality of the character’s station, while emphasising the emptiness and lack of fulfilment in the character’s life. Dechant’s production design is striking and clearly inspired by the stage, without feeling too “stage-like”. The scene in which Macbeth is visited by the Witches the second time has phenomenal production design as the Witches sit on beams above Macbeth as the character sits beside a pool of water and awaits to hear his fate. What makes the production design so effective is how simple it looks, but actually conveys the vastness of the land that Macbeth wishes to rule over.
The Tragedy of Macbeth may mark Joel Coen’s first solo project, but hopefully it won’t be his last. Coen’s minimalist approach allows the performances to shine, while also boasting innovative production design, wonderful cinematography, and a striking score. What makes the film so effective is how stripped back it is in its approach, meaning that the focus is on the text. It may not have the same level of flourish as other Oscar contenders, but it’s definitely worth the watch and marks one of Washington’s career-best performances.
What did you think of The Tragedy of Macbeth? Let me know in the comments below!
The Tragedy of Macbeth is available to watch on Apple TV!