The Tragedy of Macbeth

Is Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth really necessary?

Despite some inspired creative decisions, this Shakespeare adaptation falls flat.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Paul Verhoeven laughed when asked if sex scenes in cinema are necessary. “Nothing is necessary in movies,” he answered. Rather than being dismissive, he seemed celebratory. Even art that has something to say is not strictly necessary — that’s what makes it art. In Joel Coen’s latest, The Tragedy of Macbeth, it’s hard to overcome the question of necessity. Macbeth has been adapted endlessly. Kurosawa’s adaptation, Throne of Blood, is considered one of the greatest films of all time. If you’re not going to re-invent the wheel and put your spin on it, why? 

Coen says that his brother Ethan would never let him make a film like this. Joel had directed his wife, Frances McDormand, in the role of Lady Macbeth in a stage production almost a decade ago. He always wanted to bring it to the screen. On stage, McDormand played opposite Conleth Hill, and on-screen, Denzel Washington takes up the mantle of the Scottish King. 

The film pares down Shakespeare’s text and maintains the theatricality of the sets. Inspired by the works of Welles and Eisenstein, the production design leans into minimalism, but it can be described as barren. In his adaptation, Coen’s major creative decision is skewing Macbeth and his wife older; their ambition wearied but desperate. When Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and children in the final act, it resonates that they are childless and will never have children of their own. The tone of their cruelty hits differently than if they had still been of child-bearing age.

This creative decision may be the most exciting thing about Coen’s adaptation. In this version, Macbeth feels entitled to the throne. He’s worked hard and is nearing the twilight of his life. He’s not patient enough to see if the witch’s prediction will pan out. He immediately puts into action a plan to seize the throne. He’s already an old man, and he has no time to wait. Lady Macbeth’s shrewishness is underplayed. Instead, her fate seems irreparably tied to the man she loved as if they share the same heart and soul.

The film has many interesting touches. The aesthetic approach to the three witches feels genuinely mystical. The sets are stunning if you love modernist architecture, and they capture the hollowness of its characters. It feels deliberate and symbolic when we have a late film shift towards a wooded area. If anything, it’s impossible to accuse Joel Coen of not thinking through his decisions.

Ironically, since Coen has expressed in interviews that he wanted to make a Shakespeare play for an audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare, I can’t imagine this film has much interest for anyone but an audience familiar with Macbeth. That’s why it’s frustrating that the film inevitably falls flat. The film lacks tonal variations and falls into a somewhat droning, monotone pace. It’s a challenge to pick out a single moment, line-reading or even glance that enlivens the film’s overly dour atmosphere. 

The actors are certainly good but hardly revelatory. Particularly in close-ups, they’re beautiful to look at. The Coens certainly have a talent for “faces,” and there’s no exception here, but it doesn’t feel quite enough. The heavy-contrast black and white photography and the hollow echo of the sound design drown out some of the most charismatic actors working right now. They have to fight to be seen, but the weary approach to the characterizations doesn’t allow them to. Instead, they’re forced to compete with an oppressive atmosphere that eats them up.

Did we need another Shakespeare adaptation? Probably not, but that isn’t to say there aren’t some fascinating ideas at play in Coen’s adaptation. It’s only that the ideas aren’t enough to overcome the film’s monotone. It’s, unfortunately, a film of surfaces that fails to plunge deep into the psyche of any of its characters. Washington and McDormand make a compelling couple, but they fail to connect with an audience. Was the film really necessary? Well, none are, but some are more worth your time than others. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen

The Tragedy of Macbeth is available to rent or buy on Apple TV+ starting Jan. 14.

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