‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is a nightmarish Shakespearean noir


Photo: Apple/A24

Since the beginning of the American film industry, Hollywood has been embroiled in an unending love affair with adaptation. Feature films are expensive prospects for the executives who fill the corporate boards in Los Angeles that ultimately decide which are made. Their standard strategy when attempting to produce a film that will be commercially successful is to base it upon an artistic work from another medium that has already been embraced by audiences. As one of the most revered tragedies in the western literary canon, William Shakespeare’s 1606 play “Macbeth” was destined to arrive on the silver screen sooner rather than later. However, I feel certain that even the most rabid fan of Shakespeare’s work would be inclined to agree that 25 film adaptations of Macbeth is more than a little overzealous. This glut of films leaves all new adaptations of the stage play with the crushing responsibility of justifying their own existence in a cinematic landscape populated with more Macbeth films than anyone ever asked for. Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is an aesthetic triumph, a nightmarish Shakespearean noir propelled by an awe-inspiring cast whose greatest shortcoming is how little it adds to the ever expanding canon of Macbeth cinema.


The film follows the familiar story of Scottish general Macbeth (Denzel Washington) who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will one day become king of Scotland. Under encouragement from his wife (Francis McDormand), Macbeth kills the king and takes the throne for himself. Fearing disloyalty, he soon begins paranoid and tyrannical, executing many of his subjects. Soon, a civil war erupts in attempt to overthrow him, resulting in even more death and threatening his rule. At first glance, directing a film adaptation of “Macbeth” seems like a peculiar project for Joel Coen to choose as his solo directing debut. The filmography of the Coen brothers is comprised of dark character studies set in 19th and 20th America. Marking the first film ever made by one of the Cohens without the involvement of the other, Joel Coen even confessed in an interview that he would not have made the film if he was working with his brother, as the project would not have interested him. However, fundamentally, “Macbeth” fits perfectly with Coen’s’ habitual storytelling instincts. Like the rest of the Coen brothers’ protagonists, he is a deeply flawed individual with outsized ambitions who attempts to improve his station in life through immoral means and suffers dire consequences as a result. Simultaneously, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the film as a major departure for Joel Coen, which it most assuredly is.

Photo: Apple/A24

Filmed entirely in black and white by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the film is an imposing amalgamation of the theatrical and cinematic sensibilities that entraps the audience inside of a foggy dreamscape of its own creation. The story being told here is one we are intimately familiar with, yet it comes off less like a vivid memory and more like a vague recollection of the grim events of a haunted past. The nightmarish world that the film inhabits did not spring fully formed from the mind of Joel Coen, but resulted from the coalescence of a multitude of pronounced influences: The distorted simplicity of German expressionism, the unyielding framing of early 20th century film noir, the bizarre visual symmetry of the paintings of M.C. Escher, and a whole host of others. The overall decorum of the film, from the sharp lines of the architecture to the sparseness of everyday objects to the savvy manipulation of shadows and light, produces a kind of dark echo chamber that serves as the perfect backdrop for a tragedy this sorrowful. From the opening shot of the film, Coen establishes a painstaking sense of tension and dread that threatens to erupt at any moment. The high contrast lighting, as well as the stark, minimalist sets immaculately designed by Stefan Dechant, further enhance the general ambience of foreboding through their rejection of naturalism in favor of sheer artifice. The absence of period accurate sets dramatizes the tragedy at the center of the narrative by casting the audience’s attention squarely upon the characters and story events.

The empty spaces that would have occupied by background visuals are instead filled with the magnificent performances of the cast. Washington, his beard now streaked with gray, portrays an older Macbeth whose glory days are now well behind him. Against the fatalist, expressionistic world of the film, he presents a deeply human face. The actor, who is now 67, adds a winning sense of weariness to the character that was not present in previous iterations. Washington’s endearing performance makes us all the more apprehensive at the prospect of the descent into madness that we know is fast approaching, and all the more mournful when he inevitably does succumb to his own demons. Similar to what Washington adds to the titular character, McDormand brings a graceful sense of age and experience to Lady Macbeth. She gives a more restrained performance that casts the character not as a hysterical temptress, but as a sincere wife who earnestly wants what is best for her husband, making the eventual outcome of the story even more tragic. The rest of the roles are filled with a stately assortment of screen and stage actors that each fill their respective role exceptionally well. The film’s standout performance is undoubtedly Kathryn Hunter, who portrays all three witches and whose mastery of physical acting is astonishing here. The camera emphasizes her movements as she utters the ominous lines that will doom Macbeth while bending her limbs in abnormal directions.

Photo: Apple/A24

For viewers who have somehow managed to avoid reading Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy, this film is not an especially accessible adaptation. I regret to inform any sophomore English students desperately attempting to understand the tragedy through Shakespeare’s affectations who hoped that this film could act as a substitute that it offers little to assist you in your comprehension of the detailed prose of the play. The plot and prose of the stage play are cut down to accommodate the leaner runtime, leaving behind a sparse narrative framework that proficiently explores the main events of the story. Nevertheless, the exclusion of much of the rhetorical fancy that makes Shakespearean writing so delightfully extra occasionally undercuts the potential for greater theatricality, particularly in the line delivery. All in all, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a noteworthy achievement on the part of the filmmakers and the cast. Yet, on a conceptual level, it feels unmistakably redundant amongst a torrent of “Macbeth” films, many of which tell the story of the play with more dramatic aptitude than this film exhibits.