‘Macbeth’ By the Book

Joel Coen’s adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy isn’t weird enough

Fair is foul and foul is fair in Joel Coen’s erratically electric and intermittently static version of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. The hyper-stylized production is first-rate: commanding actors swaddled in bold costume designs and treading on defiantly theatrical sets, all rendered in vivid digital black and white cinematography. But the crisp images of minimalist scenery—think Scottish castle as Scandinavian show home—add an antiseptic quality to the famously graphic tale of supernatural tragedy. And too many shot-countershot exchanges of iambic pentameter are directed with a surprising lack of imagination. It’s park-and-bark Shakespeare, punctuated by extraordinary moments of eye-ravishing flair.

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THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH  ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson
Running time: 148 mins

After decades creating top-tier American cinema with his brother Ethan, the long-collaborating filmmaker has crafted a go-it-alone outing full of sound and fury. But signifying what, exactly? A palate cleanser? A reset button? The film feels like a creative eruption, boldly different, a singular vision within his duopolistic career. It’s admirably aberrant. Yet it’s also, in its own way, uniquely disengaged.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand plot in Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth.’ (Apple TV+)

As subject matter for his solo debut, the Scottish play is a safe bet: the immortal bard’s well-trod source material is unimpeachable. And the Elizabethan noir fits snugly within the Coen brothers’ other fatalistic visions, where characters are never as smart as they think and always too headstrong to avoid the inevitable. Maybe such a narrative safety net was a comfort for a filmmaker whose other co-authored works are otherwise daringly original stories along with a few impeccable book adaptations. Or maybe it was just the idea of working with wife Frances McDormand to preserve her acclaimed stage performance of Lady Macbeth—especially when they could enlist Denzel Washington to join them.

Those two Oscar-winning stars deliver long-career expertise, of course, but also epitomize the most overtly intriguing twist of this Macbeth iteration. Instead of the traditionally young power-hungry couple, they are closer to the end of their lives and that much more driven by their last-chance throne grab. When, while describing their neophyte treachery, Macbeth says “we are yet but young indeed,” it also feels now like a grim pep talk to convince them both that they’re not too old to pull it off.

Washington seems slightly somnambulant at the start and only really warms to the role as Macbeth develops his royal swagger. By the end, his physicality is as thrilling as the cocky cadence in his voice. McDormand, shrewd side-eyes and cutting glances, delivers a cunning Lady Macbeth, but her psychotic breakdown comes too fast and furious—her wailing, wild-haired, sunken-eyed sleepwalking confessional has a pedal-to-the-metal lack of subtle anguish.

Yet both fall prey to Coen’s unenthusiastic direction during long stretches of dialogue. He seems more inspired when channeling German Expressionism—Lady Macbeth standing on the edge of an impossibly sheer cliff, Ross hunting down Banquo’s child in the wild reeds, a maelstrom of Dunsinane foliage unleashed through the castle windows. But then he occasionally stumbles into the kind of painfully self-conscious architectural framing and a vapid lyricism more suited for an ’80s-era Chanel No. 5 commerical. Share the fantasy, Macduff!

This movie adaptation of Macbeth feels weirdly superfluous, and doesn’t have the same kind of cathartic urgency that past iterations shared. Orson Welles’ brogue-heavy 1948 version comes immediately to mind—his is also black-and-white, shot in academy ratio, filmed entirely on sound stages, and owes a deep debt to German Expressionism. But it’s the product of a man shaped by theater, in thrall to Shakespeare, and still spoiling to prove himself as a filmmaker. Roman Polanski’s harrowing, mournful 1971 version is the PTSD product of a haunted man dealing with the loss of his murdered wife and unborn child. And Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film, with a firey Michael Fassbender and sultry Marion Cotillard, epitomizes an earthy, blood-drenched ferocity that illuminates the director’s continued exploration of troubled masculinity.

Kathryn Hunter, very weird as The Weird Sisters in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth.’ (Apple TV+)

Only one aspect of Coen’s vision feels like a revelation: the infamous trio of witches. What a masterstroke to cast Kathryn Hunter as all three weird sisters, casting her eerie reflections, contorting her limbs, shape-shifting into ravens, and delivering ominous omens while perched on turret timber. By the pricking of their thumbs, Coen’s midnight hags give a jolt of brilliant invention and a glimpse into the kind of wildly original interpretation that could have transformed the rest of the film.


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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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