Shakespeare, likely the greatest to ever do it, has approximately 38 plays to his name, all of which are public domain. With a treasure trove of material to play with, Hollywood has often found itself scrambling to make some of the greatest works of all time feel fresh and relevant, usually trying to modernize or revamp the pieces to little avail. With the studios’ wobbly track record, it’s remarkable to see Joel Coen and Co. produce an adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth so faithfully bound to The Bard’s text while still completely reinventing it for the screen.
They do so not by adding a modern twist or even setting it in the modern age, but by making what was meant for the stage feel like it was destined for the cinema. Coen takes the evergreen source material and elevates it with his indelible love for both text and film, working in broad expressionist strokes as he utilizes every tool in the box to craft this towering adaptation. With a cast and crew to die for, The Scottish Play has never felt more alive.
Since it premiered at the New York Film Festival, the technical fantasia of the film has been touted as the key element of its success. Although I disagree, the flowers are far from undeserved. Bruno Delbonnel is a mad genius, a fact made more evident than ever in his highlighting of the brutalist slabs of set design, keenly evoking the isolationist descent into madness of the king, working and reworking their moody atmosphere from frame to frame.
That very set design is some of the best in memory. The choice to shoot the entire thing on a soundstage only adds to the pervasive claustrophobia inherent to the story as the walls close in on Macbeth’s charade. Though, I would argue that the unsung hero of the piece is its sound design. Just as the witches three invite you to bear witness to this macabre tale, the sound envelops the audience in the thane’s growing paranoia, coercing its audience to bear witness to this demented fairytale journey. And for all the mastery of every craft on display, it is all to serve its most significant feat.
The most important thing one must bring to the table for a Shakespeare adaptation is a fresh perspective, and Joel Coen’s perspective is like none other. His trademark idiosyncrasy and wry nature preside to make this adaptation so viscerally discernible from almost any other on their own, but perhaps the most refreshing aspect is how Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand go about playing the malevolent power couple. Rather than dolefully observe a couple succumb to the ambition of youth, the audience is treated to two masterclass turns by all-time greats in their later years, as lovers whose trust and knowledge of each other runs blood deep and is intrinsic to their nature.
McDormand herself said they played the duo as if Romeo and Juliet had never died, a choice that both validates and elevates their casting. Washington in particular wears his Macbeth as a weary warrior whose depravity stems not from blind ambition but pent-up fury from years of being passed over. He’s no petulant grandstander; instead, he dons a wartorn haggardness that adds weight to the tragedy never seen before.
The dynamic actors bring a ride-or-die quality to the duo’s relationship that heightens the drama exponentially. Moreover, Washington is just so clearly at home with the prose. He controls each scene with ease and makes Shakespeare’s dense words feel almost conversational. He inhabits this world so comfortably that Macbeth’s descent to madness appears logical and organic.
Diverging from what is concrete about the film to explore what feelings it provokes leads to even more interesting aspects. The haunting architecture looms over every scene with perpetual dread. Every set feels more confined than the last, always evoking the feeling of a demented fairytale which is, in many ways, the very essence of The Tragedy. It is a fable told by three devious narrators whose puppet-stringing of the show forces the road to a pitch-black moral. Greed’s all-consuming nature leads only to ruin. To a castle slowly consumed by the forest around it until it’s left a husk of what was and what had been attempted in its place. That emptiness is driven home by the stark black and white palette and the eerie minimalism to the editing as both Macbeth and the audience feel his reality slipping away through his fingers. Madness comes home to roost in the very walls which he claimed for himself.
It’s ironic that one of the most revitalizing pieces of cinema this year is an adaptation of one of the most weathered texts of all time. Yet, it cannot be overstated how truly brilliant this film is and how alive it makes the state of cinema as a whole feel. Coen’s Macbeth breathes a frigid air into literal Shakespeare, in and of itself a crowning achievement, but finding himself dissatisfied, he goes even further. Further unto the breach of this text to completely superimpose its weight to the screen, to make it feel like it was written for the cinema through a funhouse mirror. The stage’s symbiosis with film is complete.