For the first time in their illustrious careers, the Coen Brothers have separated for a feature film project. In the past, Joel received solo directorial credit for Intolerable Cruelty (2003), but that was only due to Director’s Guild of America (DGA) technicalities. The Tragedy of Macbeth marks Joel’s first true outing without Ethan by his side, and it results in key differences with the outcome.
There’s certainly a lack of humour in Macbeth, a trademark of the Coens eclectic filmography. Even pitch-black outings like Inside Llewyen Davis (2013) have some unfortunate laughs. But that might be chalked up to the source material’s tragic events, that’s literally in the title.
The film is incredibly stylish, like many a Coen’s film, but there’s a definite sleekness to this movie. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant turn in incredible work to construct a truly unique-looking minimal vision. The striking design adds to the thick feeling of dread in the air, a word often used to describe adaptations of Macbeth.
By this point in history, I would expect most readers to have a baseline knowledge of Macbeth’s plot, but for those—myself included—who need a refresher because high school English was a long time ago, here goes nothing: the titular Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) meets a trio of witches following a victorious battle in which he helped lead King Duncan’s (Brendan Gleeson) troops to victory over those of a traitor, the Thane of Cawdor. The three witches tell Macbeth of a prophecy of him taking over as king, and after telling his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), she gets the idea of regicide stuck in her mind. And from there, we’re steeped in a sense of claustrophobic dread and Machiavellian moves.
The performances stellar, which is another Coen staple. Washington and McDormand are perfectly cast in the leading roles. Choosing arguably the two most decorated and respected actors of their generation seems like a knowing decision considering that The Tragedy of Macbeth, like many Shakespeare works, has traditionally been considered a sort of marker for acting giants.
Washington is familiar with adaptations of The Bard, having starred in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and many stage iterations, including getting his start off-Broadway in Coriolanus. McDormand, interestingly, played Lady Macbeth on stage as recently as 2016 in Berkeley, California.
Alongside Washington and McDormand, Macduff (Corey Hawkins), King Duncan, Malcolm (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ Harry Melling), Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram), The Captain (Ralph Ineson), and others are all performed by actors who feel right at home in this world. But it’s Kathryn Hunter who steals the show. Considering her long list of experience in theatre as both a director and actor, that makes sense, but it was still surprising to see someone so unknown to general film audiences command attention amongst such a starry cast…
Hunter plays all three of the witches, dishing out some of the famous work’s most delicious lines, contorting her body into impossible positions, and adding a real sense of menace and horror to the affairs. Something wicked this way comes, indeed. She deserves real awards consideration alongside the two leads.
And yet, something still left me feeling cold after my viewing. I don’t know if it was outsized expectations for the project (Joel Coen going it alone to adapt Macbeth with such an incredible cast!), a lack of appropriate appreciation for the source material, or something else. I don’t think it’s a lack of appreciation for the text. Throne of Blood (1957), Akira Kurosawa’s legendary adaptation of the story, is a thrilling and truly visceral, albeit not quite as traditional, version of the story.
It seems to have been made cold by design, too. The sleek structures, stark visuals, the straightforward line readings… so maybe I’m missing the point. I was left wanting something more. Maybe a second viewing will change that. The Tragedy of Macbeth contains innovative designs, a fully immersive atmosphere, and a game cast, but it wasn’t the grand slam I was expecting.
USA | 2021 | 105 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Joel Coen.
writer: Joel Coen (based on William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth”).
starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling & Brendan Gleeson.