Tell anyone you’ve just seen The Tragedy of Macbeth and you’ll almost certainly have to follow up with, “Which one?” First put on in 1606 (what a time), there have since been several productions of “Macbeth” on stage, and several still that serve as film or television adaptations of Shakespeare’s popular political drama.
It’s taught in theater class and reflected on by many a modern fiction scholar. It has even become the subject of theater-kid superstition, with many referring to the tale as “The Scottish Play,” lest their production be plagued with curses and tragedy as heavy as that of which ol’ Macbeth had to endure.
To balance the intense level of expectation that comes naturally with creating a new adaptation of the tale, director Joel Coen (directing for the first time without his brother, Ethan Coen) assembled only the best that Hollywood had to offer for his eery take on the forlorn tragedy. Starting at the very center of the story, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the titular Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively.
The Tragedy of Macbeth features an ensemble cast of risen and rising greats alike. Brendan Gleeson (The Comey Rule, Paddington 2), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, In the Heights), Bertie Carvel (Les Miserables, The Crown), and Harry Melling (The Harry Potter series, The Queen’s Gambit) join Washington and McDormand in bringing Coen’s vision of a “dreamlike” Shakespeare to the big screen. Kathryn Hunter, a legend of the stage, is the macabre cherry on top.
The film, distributed by A24 with Apple, is planned for a theatrical release just in time for Christmas, before heading to Apple’s streaming platform in January. As evident by the cast above, sheer performance power is not the biggest obstacle The Tragedy of Macbeth has to overcome. Washington delivers as Macbeth, reciting lines with such vigor and ease that you would think he somehow collaborated with Willy Shakes to invent the original role. McDormand haunts the “stage,” wandering the halls of the castle and perfectly displaying Lady Macbeth’s declining stability.
There isn’t a phoned-in act to be found in the supporting cast either, as classic Shakespeare characters like MacDuff, King Duncan, and more are brought to life in chilling fashion.
Coen’s rendition of the Scottish play doesn’t differ from many others in that regard. Macbeth’s tale has always been one treated with care and skill. But every adaptation of the story, particularly films, strives to be different from the last. To give the audience a reason to seek out any specific version of Macbeth.
Coen’s method, for example, is stripping down the story of Macbeth to only its most basic narrative and visual components. It is Macbeth mostly in title, as Coen’s ambitious efforts seem to serve more as a love letter to the silent, black and white expressionist era of film. Although without the silent part, there is quite a bit of Shakespearean dialogue with nary a subtitle in sight.
This barebones style of storytelling leads to some noticeable issues in terms of context, which unfortunately lend to some holes in the otherwise impenetrable armor of Washington and McDormand’s showing. Seemingly important storylines make off with very little resolution, or perhaps not the proper timing or pace.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s inability to have children is treated as more of a passing influence on Macbeth’s quest for power, and his own descent into madness and greed is expedited from the start. It’s hard to picture Macbeth as more of a tragic hero when the lens he’s seen through is more that of a hesitant villain.
Still, these issues are slim for this writer, and the minimalistic, yet altogether striking cinematography serves itself well for Coen’s vision. The saving grace, without any doubt, is Kathryn Hunter. The longtime stage actress portrays the Three Witches, as well as the Old Man, fully enveloping and inhabiting the mystifying realm that exists just beyond the view of the audience and the players themselves. She takes on an inhuman form that provides many of the film’s visual magic, as well as some of the most chilling monologues in the entire feature. This lucid dream adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth owes a large debt to her and the entire cast’s dedication, for that matter, completing the atmosphere of Coen’s poetic playing field.
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in limited release on December 25 through A24. It will begin streaming on Apple TV+ starting January 14. Watch the trailer here.