After about a couple of thousand years, the wheels on Shakespeare adaptations are surely running the risk of running down its tread. While I’ll save my grievances towards the Great Bard for some other article down the road, it’d be hard for me to talk down on the man’s staying power as, if you were to shake a random person and ask them about the tale of a crazed king and his wife offing people in the face of destiny and greed, you’d have a damn good chance of finding them saying they have indeed read that story in high school. So, what’s there left to gain from yet another adaptation of the tragedy of Macbeth? Well, according to Joel Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, a surprising good amount of stuff!
In his first solo outing in the director and writer’s chair (his brother, Ethan Coen, decided to hang back at the house for this film), Joel sheds most of the unmistakable Coen-ness of the duo’s previous works to dive headfirst into a literal Shakespearean tragedy. Essentially keeping most of The Bard’s dialogue as is (outside of a few tweaks here or there if Joel’s “co-writing” credit is anything to go by), Coen finds the pivot in the visuals of this tale, taking the politics and conflicts of long ago warring European clans and drenching them in a shadowy realm of sparse castles and claustrophobic trails. Thanks to the gorgeously grim work of production designer Stefan Dechant and the other departments that helped craft this nightmarish version, this adaptation focuses on changing the visual world of Shakespeare. Very much in tune to the looks of German Expressionist films of the early 20’s, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH elevates what are essentially soundstages into nightmarish capsules that have snared our characters in the doom chambers of their own making.
As mentioned earlier, the story remains about the same as it has for the last thousand or so years, however this time with the noticeable tweak of casting two older screen legends as the power hungry couple. Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his Lady (Frances McDormand) have toiled under kings for their entire lives, so it makes sense that when a “weird” woman (played with scene-stealing otherworldliness by Kathryn Hunter) prophesizes that Macbeth will soon reign as his own king, the destined couple will do everything they can to seize their seemingly last chance at power, no matter how many throats they’ll have to slit. By casting an older duo as the earliest toxic couple in history, Coen’s approach grants a unique sense of sympathy towards Macbeth and his wife, here played with a sort of aching and bruised royalty by Washington and McDormand who begin the tale as soft spoken followers and soon devolve into desperate beings grasping violently for one last taste of power. Even as they stab and burn their way through political obstacles, Washington and McDormand maintain a sort of muted approach to their characters, which compared with other adaptations (and even the original story itself), makes for an initially understated method that eventually reveals itself to be a cover for the frantic murderous beings hiding beneath their exterior royalties.
Through it all, Washington and McDormand hold the screen with their steely presences. While Washington goes through the rare bout of “movie star yelling” — particularly in a moment where Macbeth raves mad about a ghost — that natural charm and charisma, now aged a few years, fits perfectly with an elder royal with something still left to prove. As his equal, McDormand doesn’t come across as conniving as Lady does in the OG text (at least in my own interpretation) but as an equal sort of desperate elder like her husband. As their worlds inevitably crumble, the Macbeths don’t come across as villainous royals but something closer to opportunistic people who got duped and have only made the wrong moves from then on. With the theme of tragedy so apparent in this tale, even as he adapts a stage play, it fits that Coen’s other works of people at the whims of violent crooks and bizarre happenstance find a similarity in this tale. Even the duo’s particular sense of dry/dark/cynical comedy ends up feeling at home in a Shakespearean world with the minor bits of gallows (or drunk, in the particular scene-stealing drunken ramblings of a former KING OF THE HILL character actor) humor darkly enhancing the morose and brutal world the Macbeths have created for themselves and others.
Even as Coen benefits from the usage of a viable group of performers who take to their own bit parts to task — there’s hardly a weak link in every performer who has a line here— the olden dialogue itself can make this a challenging watch. As it was for me in high school, it goes for me in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH as the archaic dialogue, while eloquently spoken, could sometimes be too foreign for me to keep up with, leading to some scenes feeling scattered as the gaps in understanding the dialogue had me more focused on trying to interpret what was said rather than getting fully ingratiated in the story. This issue could sometimes bleed into other aspects of the film as certain scenes and even characters — such as Alex Hassell’s seemingly conniving Ross — can come off in an unwieldy manner thanks to the viewer (such as me) not quite understanding all the bits of dialogue that could potentially explain certain actions and motivations. But hey, maybe I should just hit the books more, right?
Whether you understand most of the dialogue or not, however, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH surely makes for one of the more entertaining adaptations of this age old story thanks to its director’s unique visual approach. You’ll get the great performances, and the fanciful dialogue, and the tragic and well-woven story as you would in other attempts, but here, Joel Coen offers the additional prize of a wonderfully realized visual world that enhances a timeless work.