I have something to share with you: Macbeth is pretty much my favourite piece of writing ever.
I studied it in high school and just fell in love with it then (and played Donalbain in our year’s production of it, so honestly, a thesp), and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. There aren’t many adaptations of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy that I haven’t seen, and when I heard that Joel Coen would be taking a crack at it, under the title The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Mister and Mrs Macbeth, I was in.
So when I come at this film, I do it from a place of utter and complete love, near-deification, of the original text – but also, from a place of curiosity. I’m always interested to see what new spins people have for this story – the setting, the characters, the staging, all of it. I’m no purist when it comes to Shakespeare (the best Romeo and Juliet adaptation is Baz Lurhman’s neon-soaked, high-glam Leo-fest, as far as I’m concerned), and I think making a cinematic adaptation of this play is a hugely different beast than staging a, well, stage version.
So, Joel Coen’s movie has two levels upon which to succeed: as a version of Macbeth, and as an adaptation of the play for the screen. For the latter, it’s hard to deny the insane level of quality that we’re talking here: the cinematography is unbelievable beautiful, the black-and-white colour scheme matched with the stark shadows and brights of the central castle harkening back to something like Throne of Blood. The built-for-purpose sets really give the entire thing this sense of unreality, which matches with the dialogue that comes from what it essentially, now, a different world. The elements of surrealism are perfectly wrapped-around the more normal aspects, and the lines blur further and further as Coen balances the story between fate, choice, and misdirection.
The performances are uniformly brilliant – McDormand, predictably, has the grit and gall for this kind of performance, and Washington more than rises to meet her. He excels most as Macbeth spirals down into exasperation and paranoia, picking apart the façade of that noble warrior once so beloved by his country. As a film, it’s brilliant, it is.
And as an adaptation? It’s pretty damn great, too. The script has been streamlined a bit (Malcolm’s more interesting stuff is almost entirely chopped, a choice which I understand but still find a little disappointing, especially since the casting of the one-time Dudley Dursley as Malcolm as a bit of a banner advertisement for this movie), but Coen has expanded deftly on other characters, like Ross, to bring a new interpretation of their actions and allegiances. It’s hard to fuck with Shakespeare and make it work, but Joel Coen displays a comprehensive-enough understanding of what’s important about this play to be able to play a little with the pieces that are left more open-ended. I particularly love his re-working of the Witches and the way they function in the movie, unsettling and otherworldly in a way that the original play states them as but isn’t always captured particularly well.
Washington stands up amongst some of the great Macbeth performances, able to shed some of his Movie Star charisma for something a little more grounded and gritty, but nonetheless a consistently commanding presence. He’s not usurping anyone from the top spot (which, for me, is still probably Kenneth Branagh in the National Theatre version a few years ago), but he’s got the gravitas to bring it home.
Joel Coen has done something spectacular with The Tragedy of Macbeth; it’s both an exceptional cinematic experience, and a brilliant re-working of the original play that doesn’t fail to capture the core themes that make Macbeth such a compelling tale. As a long-time lover of all things Macbeth, add this one to the best-of list.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The Wrap)