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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ gets consumed by its massive, yet minimalist ambitions

Oh, Coen brother.

The following is an edited transcript of the video above.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is yet another adaptation of the classic play by William Shakespeare, and it is indeed unlike any other take on this material in a multitude of ways. This is Joel Coen’s first film directing and writing without his brother’s involvement, and it’s noticeable right away that this is a style and approach to filmmaking truly all his own.

The film stars Denzel Washington — of course, a seasoned veteran actor who got his start with Shakespearean roles — as Lord Macbeth, a seasoned veteran military officer who sets out to steal the throne of Scotland at any, bloody cost, escalating into a conflict that takes the entire land by storm. He’s nudged in this direction by his wife, Lady Macbeth, played by Frances McDormand, as well as three witches, each of them identically and hauntingly played by Kathryn Hunter, who appeared briefly in some of the Harry Potter movies and also had a supporting role in the TV series, Rome.

This is the typical Macbeth story told in a mostly atypical fashion. That is, the dialogue is ripped almost whole cloth from the play with very little modern interpretation to hold the hand of the audience. Which on its own could be a major threat to the film working as intended, but the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (this is by far his best work yet), down to the editing and costume design and overall vision Cohen and his team are going for here, is certainly of a piece. It all goes together in a mysterious, yet strangely appealing way. 

There’s an almost ethereal quality to the dialogue of Shakespeare when read aloud today, and it’s a powerful thing to see (and hear) that crisp, sometimes inarticulate and meandering prose matching against a minimalist, otherworldly landscape soaked in endless fog, built by perfectly angular architecture, room laid barren to match the empty souls of their inhabitants, and an impending doom that can’t be seen literally, but it can surely be felt. 

If The Tragedy of Macbeth all came down to these trappings, and the respectful effort in translating Shakespeare visually without losing the soul of his writing, then this would easily be one of the best pictures of the year. But where the film falls short is, almost inevitably, the emotional stakes of the story, and how some of the basic fundamentals of characterization and investment will likely alienate some audiences even more than the “what” of the words they might not understand right away, because this is a film missing the “why” of its words. 

Why does Macbeth want to be king? In Shakespeare’s time, it was a given. Almost no need to elaborate further on why someone would crave absolute power in a hierarchal setting where power is nowhere close to being equally distributed. Do people today want to be royalty? Probably, but arguably fewer than at any time in civilized history. Modern audiences have been inundated with far more subversive, challenging media and ideas about the societal responsibilities and pitfalls of monarchy, even when inherited without breaking the rules and a few heads. We simply live in a fragmented culture where there still is a lot of power at the top, but it’s spread out among far more people than ever, and there’s more complex commentary to be had in regards to what people are willing to do to shortcut their way to power. 

If the original play was about the corruption of greed, then it can still carry today quite easily, to be clear. But The Tragedy of Macbeth never quite lands the heart of its tragic figure’s desires. He doesn’t want to be king because of anything tangibly shown or demonstrated. He’s told he must do terrible things, and he hardly reckons with these actions beyond the obvious physical risk involved. You can fill in some blanks yourself, sure, like in how this is an older Macbeth than we’ve seen in other adaptations, and there’s urgency to him getting what he wants before it’s too late. But again, it’s not clear what’s so lacking in his current state as Thane that would explain why a prophecy from some mist-drenched crones would set off his presumed, fiery passion for the throne. 

Granted, this is a sizable improvement over Macbeth, the 2015 film by Justin Kurzel, which imagined a more action-oriented, war-like setting for Michael Fassbender’s generic take on the character, and worse, that attempt bizarrely pushed Lady Macbeth, played by Marion Cotillard, to the side for some inexplicable reason. So there’s no real comparison between these films, particularly when it comes to the craft of this latest reimagining that will hopefully inspire filmmakers of all ages to rethink what’s possible with filming a period piece. Love or hate The Tragedy of Macbeth, there’s no question it contributes something refreshing and new to an outdated genre. 

For that reason alone, I want to give this film, which many other critics are admittedly raving about, the barest passing grade, because there is true value in what this film contributes to the medium, even if the level of filmmaking quality that I personally strive for in everything I see, that being the connection between narrative and character, gets largely missed here despite Washington and McDormand’s raw talent filling lifeless husks. McDormand gets a lot of time in this film to stand out, and she surely does in her own way, but this is a weirdly muted Lady Macbeth missing some of that wavering, maniacal manipulation that makes her such a lasting cautionary tale. 

To be fair, it’s hard to compare when just five years ago, Florence Pugh reached a high point of this role in Lady Macbeth, which wasn’t close to being a literal adaptation, but it did capture and reignite the soul of that character while also humanizing and making sense of it against the actual societal imbalances of that time period, not just between women and men, but racially, as well. 

Washington is good, as expected, throughout, but there is one moment where his true mastery finally bursts out, in just one scene toward the end where I suddenly woke up from my eyes-open dream state to see an example of a character doing something compelling onscreen for comprehensible reasons. It’s a ruthless, nail-biting fight scene between Macbeth and someone else I won’t spoil, and it was the brief, momentary reminder that you can make this old-fashioned character come alive with emotional purpose and relatability. It’s just a shame, maybe a tragedy, the rest of the film doesn’t consistently live up to that high, storytelling standard.

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in select theaters on December 25th through A24 and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting January 14th.

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