“Oftentimes to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths; win us with honest trifles to betray us in deepest consequence.” Banquo’s words ring as one of the prominent themes in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, which adapts William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Approaching the original text authoritatively rather than theoretically, the writer-director focuses more on ambitions of legacy than of power, and on moral obliteration than on snowballing tragedy.
As one of the paragons of fiction’s unlikely protagonists, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) wastes no time killing off all those prophesied to be his undoing. He and Banquo are visited early on by a witch (Kathryn Hunter), perhaps implied to be the devil himself, who informs Macbeth, already Thane of Glamis, that he will also become Thane of Cawdor, though fails to reveal how. Likewise, she tells Banquo that he will father a line of kings – now posing a threat to Macbeth as he discovers his deep-seated ambitions, which are spurred on even more by his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand).
There’s no doubt Coen leans heavily on his big screen predecessors, including Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Roman Polanski’s 1971 film Macbeth, the latter of which sees the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) – an ancillary, if not peripheral figure in Shakespeare’s original play – have greater usage. Here, Coen places him as the third murderer during the assail of Banquo, where in the original text, this identity of the third killer remains a much-debated mystery.
This current version of Ross is indeed a sort of counterpoint to our titular Macbeth, with his own ambitions – not driven by emotion, so as to increase the risk of blunder, but by hunger for control, regardless of any power and legacy he earns from it.
Film adaptations of Shakespeare have always been about balancing the burdensome 17th century English iamb with present-day cinematic conventions. And as cinematic conventions evolve over time, that balance resolves differently. For instance, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw arguably the most successful relationship between the two mediums with the likes of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear (1970), Polanski’s Macbeth, Peter Brook’s King Lear (1971), for no other reason than the harmony of translation for the creatives and audiences of that time.
Coen’s 2021 Macbeth never visually compromises its medium for the sake of its source. The production design by Stefan Dechant displays a heightened sense of immersion, evoking the architectural spirit of Robert Wiene’s 1920 expressionist benchmark The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as well as the quietude of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal. Coen imbues nearly each frame with a blanket of mist. There are even ambient surrealist echoes of Zack Snyder’s Spartan epic 300 at times. These filmic choices help justify keeping the arduous speech patterns and expatiating soliloquies of Shakespeare in a modern adaptation.
Likewise, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel helps Coen nail the heightened reality that’s embedded in Shakespeare’s original text. With forced perspectives that place the two leads diminutively underneath high ceilings and between the walls of broad rooms, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s endeavor feels as intimate and ostracizing as intended, made even more prominent through the use of a boxy 4:3 ratio – a delicate tone that would be impossible to achieve amidst the limitations of the theater. You see, this film could never be visually mistaken for a stage play. And that’s one of the things that makes the rendition so unique.
Joel Coen’s first solo effort apart from his brother Ethan finds verisimilitude through his own snow globe in a way no other Coen brothers movie ever has. The black and white aesthetic helps with congruity, while also allowing him to enhance the mood with chiaroscuro. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell finds mystique and even sensuality within his own interpretation of the text that plays out in his effectively minimalist musical score.
Ultimately, the authenticity of Shakespeare adaptations often hinges on the performances themselves. While Washington and McDormand’s wavering accents never detract from their already shaky interpretations, their lilts still find a softer containment. Both fantastic facial actors, it’s their anachronistic rhythms that render them a tad out of place. And still, Coen finds the antiquated verbiage at peace with these modern deliveries.
The supporting stars, however, all achieve brilliance with their performances, especially Hassell as the mustache-twirling Ross, Corey Hawkins as our sympathetic hero Macduff – our emotional connection to the story – and the always phenomenal Brendan Gleeson as the fallen King Duncan.
One could probably argue that any faithful adaptation of William Shakespeare is redundant, if not needlessly pretentious, especially if you’re going to keep the arcane dialogue. Indeed, that’s felt during this esoteric rendition. But Coen’s dedication to the text is enough to maintain credibility and artistic purpose, if not provide that balance between visually cinematic and audibly theatrical. The Tragedy of Macbeth might struggle with truly conveying the gradient downfall of the Thane of Glamis himself, thus failing to intensify the magnitude of his story, but it finds its own vantage point without simply leaning on literary mastery. It might require a bit of work to get through, but this is a film to be studied and rewatched.