Joel Coen takes on Shakespeare with beautiful results
We can thank three-time Academy-Award winning actor Frances McDormand (Nomadland, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Fargo) for bringing The Tragedy of Macbeth, husband Joel Coen’s strikingly enthralling adaptation of William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old “Scottish Play.” Five years ago, McDormand played Lady Macbeth to critical acclaim and audience appreciation for the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Northern California. It took the better part of three or four years, however, before McDormand could convince Coen, working without his brother Ethan for the first time, to bring The Tragedy of Macbeth to the big screen, adding his own singular spin to one of Shakespeare’s most read, most admired, most performed plays.
Along with Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, The Tragedy of Macbeth remains part of the high-school and college curriculum, making a plot filled with political intrigue, monarchical assassination, and the ugly, violent aftermath easily one of Shakespeare’s most recognizable, beginning with the title character, Macbeth (Denzel Washington), the Thane (lord) of Glamis, and his comrade-in-arms, Banquo (Bertie Carvel), encountering the weird sisters/witches (Kathryn Hunter, in a stunningly disturbing performance), on the way back from a successful battle defending the Scottish throne for their countryman and monarch, Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), against an attempted invasion by combined Norwegian and Irish forces.
Wearily emerging from a mist-shrouded, corpse-strewn battlefield, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the weird sisters, utter the intertwined, self-fulfilling prophecies that will determine both men’s fates. For Macbeth, they prophesy a new fiefdom followed by ascension to the kingship. For Banquo, no kingship, but a line of princes and kings, presumably from his surviving son or sons. At first, both men reject their individual prophecies, but when Duncan bestows a new title and property, Thane of Cawdor, on Macbeth, fulfilling the first part of the weird sisters’ prophecy, Macbeth begins to believe that the remainder of the prophecy will come to fruition.
Waiting patiently for a senior-level position to open up, however, isn’t in Macbeth’s nature or temperament. With a not-so-subtle push from an over-ambitious Lady Macbeth (McDormand), Macbeth violently seizes the throne, initially casting suspicion on Duncan’s sons, Malcolm (Harry Melling) and Donalbain (Matt Helm), before ruthlessly eliminating real and imagined obstacles to his rule, becoming a feared, hated tyrant in the process. Closely following Shakespeare, Coen’s Lady Macbeth almost immediately succumbs to guilt and paranoia while Macbeth’s opponents, eager to dethrone the violent madman who’s seized the throne, amass quietly in England.
So far, so familiar, but as with any adaptation of Shakespeare’s works on stage or onscreen, it’s what the adapters decide to emphasize, whether it’s dialogue (and the abridgment thereof), visual composition/staging/choreography, and performance style. Coen’s adaptation combines, compresses, and condenses one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays into one of the briefest onscreen adaptations. (The Tragedy of Macbeth runs only 105 minutes.) Shakespeare purists will be understandably upset, even annoyed, at the considerable liberties Coen takes with the Scottish Play, but on its own, The Tragedy of Macbeth tracks Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s parallel descent into hallucinatory madness at an unrelenting pace.
Coen complements his ruthless pruning of Shakespeare’s play with cinematic technique equal to if not even better than Macbeth’s previous onscreen appearances, including Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation, Roman Polanski’s 1971 grimly faithful, mud-and-muck filled take, or Orson Welles’s 1948 semi-experimental adaptation. Relying purely on sets and soundstage(s) connects Coen’s adaptation to Welles, but where Welles had to work with a Poverty Row budget and a limited shooting schedule, Coen had more ample resources at his disposal, allowing him to lean heavily on striking black-and-white imagery, Expressionist lighting and nimble camerawork courtesy of world-class cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and Stefan Dechant’s abstract, artifice-baring production design.
Little of that, of course, would have made any difference without Washington and McDormand’s central performances as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively. Casting Washington, a two-time Oscar winner himself, as a significantly older Macbeth automatically imbues his performance with an undertow of bitterness, disappointment, and ultimately desperation. Washington’s Macbeth has lived a lifetime serving the whims of an arbitrary and capricious monarch, fighting his battles, and receiving what he must consider limited or unfair compensation for his wounds, scars, and sacrifice. At least initially, McDormand’s Lady Macbeth mirrors or amplifies not just her husband’s ambitions, but the creeping sense of mortality that adds an urgency to their individual and collective actions.
It’s a masterful, masterfully simple stroke by Coen that both helps to distinguish his adaptation from its predecessors, but also elevates The Tragedy of Macbeth from a story of ambition, greed, and corruption to one of last chances or opportunities, of clashes between generations old and young, and ultimately, one where the crushing, inexorable weight of mortality makes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s fates as inevitable as they are tragic.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently in limited theatrical release. AppleTV+ will begin streaming The Tragedy of Macbeth on January 14th.