Among the many reasons why Shakespeare is probably the greatest playwright who’s ever written in the English language, the best of his works renew themselves with every telling. Every time I see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, it’s as funny as the first time. Every time I see “Romeo and Juliet”, it’s like watching a new generation of teenagers fall victim to the same old shit because we’re all too stubborn to learn any better.
And then there’s my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Macbeth”. Such a primal and universal tale of hubris and unhinged ambition that it can (and has) been adapted into every setting and time period imaginable. With each new iteration, I’m dying to know whether the Scotsman and Lady Mac will be scrappy young up-and-comers flying too close to the sun, or older seasoned veterans taking what they feel they’ve long since earned. Will the witches be beautiful sirens luring Macbeth to his doom with seductive whispers of greater fortune, or will they be avatars of an older and greater power? How will Banquo’s ghost be presented? How will Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane this time?
Granted, I’m still nursing a grudge after getting burned by that incompetent, borderline-unwatchable 2015 take with Michael Fassbender. But this time, we’ve got a Coen Brother in the writing/directing seat, complete with wife Frances McDormand as Lady Mac and Denzel Washington himself as the Scotsman. These in addition to Brendan Gleeson as Duncan, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, and so many other wonderful actors in this remarkable cast.
(NOTE: To be clear, when I say that Joel Coen was the writer, I mean that he adapted Shakespeare’s text for the screen. The characters all speak with the original dialogue.)
In point of fact, Joel Coen and his brother have both made a solid name for themselves off their knack for supporting characters, and there are so many underrated and underappreciated characters in this text. To wit, the Porter is a comic relief character frequently cut for time, wholly absent from all the previous film adaptations that I’m aware of. But here, the Porter is played by Stephen freaking Root. Slam-dunk casting right there.
Couple all of this with a trailer that promised a Shakespearean tragedy in the style of Ingmar Bergman — again, under a cinematic grandmaster like Joel Coen — and I couldn’t help getting hyped. And whoo boy, does this film deliver.
Seriously, you’ve got one of the greatest living actors in Hollywood playing one of the greatest tragic characters in all of fiction. And he’s acting opposite goddamn Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. You could buy your ticket based on those two actors alone, and you would come away satisfied. I guarantee you that this casting is every bit as exquisite as it sounds.
Likewise, Brendan Gleeson came ready-made to play Duncan, ditto for Harry Melling as Malcolm. Corey Hawkins more than brings the fire as Macduff. Alex Hassell’s unique brand of unhinged crazy might’ve singlehandedly ruined the recent live-action “Cowboy Bebop” adaptation, but that same energy makes for the most memorable portrayal of Ross that I’ve ever seen.
In point of fact, Joel Coen’s trademark attention to the background characters pays massive dividends here. Who else would hire an actor of Ralph Ineson’s extraordinary screen presence to play the unnamed captain in the opening scene? This in addition to the aforementioned Porter, Lady Macduff and son (Moses Ingram and Ethan Hutchison, respectively), the two murderers (Scott Subiono and Brian Thompson), and so many other bit part characters from the text whose scenes and exchanges could have been (and typically are) cut. Yet the filmmakers have such an extraordinary knack for knowing exactly which lines to cut and how to emphasize which lines, such that everyone gets their moment to shine while keeping the runtime to a brisk 105 minutes.
To repeat: This movie adapts Macbeth — freaking Macbeth! — into a movie under two hours long, and the end result more than does justice to the original text. That in itself is an accomplishment.
Then we have the matter of the Witch, played by Kathryn Hunter. Yes, that’s Witch, singular. Instead of three witches, we get one witch with three voices, like a split-personality thing. Yet there are unsettling visuals just subtle enough to hint at something more supernatural going on. Couple that with Hunter’s raspy voice and inhuman mannerisms, and you’ve got a Witch who’s creepy as all fuck.
The only unfortunate weak link in the cast is Bertie Carvel in the role of Banquo. To be fair, Banquo has always been an awkward character in the play. On paper, he’s a character far more notable in death than in life, and it’s difficult finding someone who could make his own impression in the role without showing any discomfort playing second banana to Macbeth. (see also: Horatio of “Hamlet”) Alas, Carvel doesn’t manage that balance particularly well, though the inexplicably godawful eyebrows don’t exactly help.
Then we have the choices made in adaptation. Reframing the “dagger” as the handle to Duncan’s bedroom door was genius. Utilizing crows as a symbol of death, thus using a flying animal to bring some movement and action and scope to the banquet scene was utterly brilliant. I’m not even going to spoil how these filmmakers handled the “toil and trouble” scene, but their approach to the cauldron was truly inspired.
Macbeth demonstrates his own “charmed life” by standing unarmed against a soldier with a blade, and killing him. Total fucking badass. Granted, they botched the “thou wast born of woman” line, but still.
But of course the most prominent and crucial creative liberty taken here is in the black-and-white presentation. It works on so many levels. For one thing, the crisp contrast between black and white onscreen nicely demonstrates the black-and-white morality and binary logic of extremes that make this play such a tragedy. More importantly, the monochrome photography — bleaching all color out of the picture — pairs nicely with the no-frills costume design and the aggressively minimalist set design. If anything, it’s like the characters are dwarfed by the pillars and ramparts and flawlessly straight lines of Dunsinane.
It all adds up to a film that’s aggressively bleak in its presentation. The filmmakers have crafted a harsh and unforgiving world to place this story into, and the whole movie conveys a hostile kind of attitude toward its own characters. And that fits superbly well with the kind of foreboding dread and savage violence that marks the best productions of “Macbeth”.
Last but not least, the camerawork and editing are marvelous across the board. Every single frame of this picture is flawlessly composed and instantly striking. I must also give kudos for some ingenious scene transitions.
The best compliment I can give to The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) is that I wish I’d had this picture when I was in high school. Every new cinematic adaptation of The Bard is destined to be some teenager’s first impression of Shakespeare’s work, and this is a damn fine movie to start with. With a cast of world-class actors under the direction of a cinematic grandmaster, every line of dialogue is expertly delivered and every last character — down to the lowliest chorus role — is brought to vivid life.
More importantly, the filmmakers were not afraid to make the movie genuinely creepy. From the supernatural aspects to the casual homicide, the filmmakers are abundantly clear in stating that nobody is safe and not even the King of Scotland is above the whims of fate. I might add that there were some truly ingenious decisions made in adapting the play and paring it down to under two hours (not to mention giving more detail to Macbeth’s arc of corruption and Lady Mac’s arc toward insanity), and stage productions everywhere would do well to crib from Joel Coen’s notes.
If you’re already a fan of Shakespeare, you’re going to love this. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be the film to convert you. Don’t miss out.