With over 1,600 writing credits to his name on IMDB, William Shakespeare has become one of the most prolific film writers of all time despite living centuries before the invention of the medium itself. Adaptations of such works as Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and indeed Macbeth have long been a staple of contemporary cinema, with the words and stories of the great playwright remaining pertinent and compelling tales.
However, whilst many adaptations have tried to modernise such tales, such as Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, with flashy cinematography, Joel Coen has recognised the simplistic genius of Shakespeare with The Tragedy of Macbeth, stripping the material down to its bare, brutal bones. With help from the likes of Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson and Corey Hawkins, among many more in the supporting cast, the film elicits a cauldron of jealousy, spiteful anger and deceit.
Going solo for the first time in his filmmaking career, Joel Coen is without his brother and longtime collaborator, Ethan, as he steers Shakespeare’s story with remarkable control and direction. Uncovering the venom beneath Macbeth’s fraudulent ‘honour’, Joel Coen tracks the footsteps of the titular lead as he seizes control of the Scottish crown thanks to the evil whispers of his wife and the words of three mysterious prophetic witches.
Captured in cold monochrome, Coen’s film is a stylish marvel of atmosphere, cleverly mimicking the simplistic sets of a theatrical performance with minimalistic rooms and faux outdoor scenes, favouring low-key simplicity over modern spectacle. It’s a wise move too, with the director allowing a sharper focus on script and performance with the viewer drawn to little else apart from the glazed eyes of Denzel Washington’s maddened Macbeth or the stiff resolve of his wife, played by Frances McDormand.
Such spectacle is instead reserved for the fantastical scenes involving the witches, where Joel Coen wonderfully utilises modern special effects, as well as the acting of Kathryn Hunter, to bring one of the finest iterations of the ethereal beings ever depicted in cinema. Sinister and enigmatic, Coen uses the darkness of the monochrome cinematography to shroud the witches in obscurity, where the audience never sees, or at least truly comprehends, their true form.
Whilst Macbeth is, of course, a story that belongs to the titular character, it has also been known as one that swirls with the wrongdoings of its supporting cast, though unfortunately for McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, there is disappointingly little to do. Most of our time is spent with Macbeth as he trips, falters and embraces his prophetic future in a faithful adaptation of the story that stylistically impresses, though narratively leaves a little to be desired.
In the adaptation of a Shakespearean classic, one has to decide how to handle the poetic albeit outdated language, with films like Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus opting for a slight update, whilst Henry V from Kenneth Branagh goes with an unchanged script. The Tragedy of Macbeth goes for the latter, taking Shakespeare’s dense dialogue to occasional heights and frequent moments of quandary. Those familiar with the source material will have no trouble following along, though Joel Coen’s film may do little to attract new lovers of the text, making itself somewhat impenetrable during moments of particularly intricate dialogue.
In his faithful and bold adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, Joel Coen sets a new precedent for how such stories can be so spectacularly realised without the need for complex reimaginings or high-budget effects. Lacking narratively, it is the atmospheric beauty of this modern monochrome adaptation that stays with you long after the lights come on and you return to the humdrum of life in colour.