James Jay Edwards reviews The Tragedy of Macbeth, a thriller film written and directed by Joel Coen and based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. (A24)
Theater geeks know that it’s bad luck the mention “The Scottish Play” by name inside of a theater. Let’s hope that doesn’t apply to movie theaters, because there’s a new adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth that’s pretty darn good.
(The Tragedy of Macbeth, theatrical release poster, courtesy A24 Films)
The Tragedy of Macbeth is, obviously, a telling of the William Shakespeare play about a Scottish lord, named Macbeth (Denzel Washington from Fences), who is told by three witches that he will be named The King of Scotland and become nearly invincible while rising to the throne. He becomes obsessed with the prospect of seizing power, and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Nomadland’s Frances McDormand), becomes mad herself with the thought of helping her husband claim what she believes is rightfully his.
At first, it might seem as if yet another cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare work wouldn’t be worth the time, but in this case, nothing is further from the truth. This version comes from writer/director Joel Coen, better known as half of the Coen Brothers, the duo behind movies like Inside Llewyn Davis, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. Coen sticks pretty closely to the original text of play (this isn’t one of those teen Shakespeare adaptations from the nineties), which basically lets Washington, McDormand, and the rest of the cast work their magic on the characters.
(The Tragedy of Macbeth, photo courtesy Apple TV and A24 Films)
Where Coen puts his stamp on The Tragedy of Macbeth is in the visuals. There’s an artificial look to the production, so it almost feels like the audience is watching a live play on a set, complete with false walls and fake trees. But here’s the kicker – Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dark Shadows) present the story in gritty black and white with creepy camera angles, so it has the appearance and style of a German expressionist film or an old Universal horror movie. It’s extremely effective, particularly during scenes with spooky elements like witches or ghosts. Coen turns The Tragedy of Macbeth into a bona fide fright flick.
(The Tragedy of Macbeth, photos by Alison Cohen Rosa, courtesy A24 Films)
Coen’s distinct dark and dreary theme does not distract from the fantastic performances in The Tragedy of Macbeth, though. It actually enhances them. Denzel Washington plays the lead role with just the right amount of subtlety, so his slow and deliberate descent into madness is fiercely believable. Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is more calculated and cunning, seemingly even more power hungry than her husband, and only showing signs of insanity once she gets to the famous “out damned spot” scene. The support cast is a regal gallery of thespians including Brendan Gleeson (Cavalry) as King Duncan, Bertie Carvel (Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell) as Banquo, Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) as Macduff, Alex Hassell (Cowboy Bebop) as Ross, and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as Malcolm.
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For as faithful of an adaptation as it is, this is Macbeth like you’ve never seen it. It’s a haunting story, made even more horrifying by the committed performances and the shadowy imagery. Macbeth is, after all, a supernatural tale, and Joel Coen embraces those aspects of the story with open arms. The Tragedy of Macbeth is as horror as Shakespeare is bound to get. Just don’t be afraid to say its name.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is in theaters on Christmas day, then streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14th.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.