Adapting the works of William Shakespeare from the stage to the screen is a time-honored tradition of prestige filmmakers.
Bringing the bard’s words to life in a way that casual audiences can understand and appreciate is perhaps the most difficult task of any director, theater or film. Shakespeare’s complicated lyrical prose uses far too many metaphors and overly floral language for the lay person to understand without a dictionary or several times reviewing and understanding the text.
Joel Coen, working for the first time separately from his brother and filmmaking partner Ethan, takes aim at one of the English playwright’s most demanding works, a five-act epic with misery, madness, murder and mayhem.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, trimmed to a 105-minute retelling, finds the titular character immediately after winning a major battle for the Scottish army when three mysterious witches tell him that he is to become a higher noble, and soon after, king. This destiny manifests itself through treachery at Macbeth’s hand pried on by his manipulative wife and results in the destruction of countless noble lives.
Denzel Washington is at his most compelling, yet manic performance that he’s given in years as the titular Macbeth, operating calmly, frantically and devolving to outright insanity in a matter of moments. His Macbeth seamlessly devolves into madness without any grandiose gestures or raving soliloquies. It’s a slow burn descent fueled by inner pain.
At his right hand, Frances McDormand revels in the classic lyrical style of Shakespeare’s language and delivers Lady Macbeth’s dialogue with a poisonous tongue fitting of the villainess but with a self-righteousness that belies the evil within her heart.
The film is also bevied by a tremendous supporting cast including Brendan Gleeson’s commanding presence as Duncan and Corey Hawkins’ redemptive hero in Macduff.
Coen’s most masterful piece of filmmaking comes not from the expert performances he pulls, but from the bizarrely wonderful visual moments he creates from 4×3 framed black and white cinematography that blends the world of theater with cinema in sharp, eccentric ways.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel takes the intimate soundstages Coen chooses to stage his theatrical play on and coats them with layers of cinematic light and shadow to create a much more elegant backdrop than the film actually deserves.
Visually, The Tragedy of Macbeth is among the year’s sharpest, most engaging features and left on silent, it would make a constant moving art gallery worthy of its own show in New York or London.
Unfortunately, the film is painstakingly dense and inaccessible to the point that its ease of access streaming on Apple TV will make Coen’s film something audiences will frequently pause or outright turn off. There isn’t enough dynamic cinema to maintain a solid interest for the full run time and the weight of the faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s dense language will force some viewers to stop, Google and rewind scenes several times just to figure out exactly what is happening or what is being said.
This ultimately lays on the feet of the filmmaker himself, who truly isn’t making The Tragedy of Macbeth for anyone but himself. And while the most deliberate of cinephiles or Shakespearean scholars will love the authenticity of the project, most of the nuance will fall flat for those who either don’t know what to look for or can’t interpret Coen’s film properly.
Because this is a prestige film with A-list actors with a classical background, it’s nearly impossible to believe that The Tragedy of Macbeth won’t be a major contender come awards season with acting nods for Washington and McDormand almost a certainty and a best picture nomination increasingly likely by the day.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is far from the easiest watch in 2021, not simply from the content itself, but just as much from how Coen struggles to bring Shakespeare to life in an easily digestible way. Nevertheless, the film’s star power and quality moments however frustrating make The Tragedy of Macbeth something worth taking a chance on for those already with an Apple TV subscription.