American high school students — and perhaps high school-age students in many predominantly English-speaking countries — have to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Teenage groans fill a teacher’s classroom with predetermined boredom and disinterest.
It’s not the source material, though. It’s often the presentation.
Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) takes Shakespeare’s classic work and reimagines it as hyper-modern and nostalgic for German expressionism. Buildings are tall and foreboding. Faces and whispers hide in the shadows.
Coen’s direction and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography take this adaptation of Macbeth to a new level. The story itself is not of note; it’s not “new” or “innovative” in any traditional sense. However, the visual creativity — the film’s stunning black and white coloring, its ethereal set — and pointed acting take Macbeth past its usual bad adolescent associations into a new path forward for both stylized drama (arthouse?) films and adaptations of classic texts.
Denzel Washington’s performance as the titular character hovers between a raw emotional outburst and carefully calculated mastermind, especially as his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) pulls the strings to guarantee Macbeth’s success. The interplay between the two leads, in particular, was devoid of sexual tension made up for by a type of near sexless dominant/submissive relationship, where the wife calls the shots, her ambition outpaced by her husband’s disinterest in strategic mind games.
Throughout the film, we’re up close and personal with Macbeth, the camera often lingering on his face or somehow closed in. The film itself is claustrophobic, the periphery filled with smoke and fog. The set design choices, especially the German Expressionism influences, draw on the art movement’s trademark sense of foreboding and imminent horror.
It’s an interesting move — to place Shakespeare in an Expressionist hellscape — but it works because of Coen’s stringent attention to detail. He (and the film’s team) are committed to this aesthetic, underpinning each scene, each line of dialogue with exaggeration and shadow. The stark contrast between light and dark reflects the harsh reality of Macbeth’s life and the oft black-and-white choices he must make: life or death for his opposers?
Though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are well-known Shakespeare characters in and of themselves, Macbeth’s witches have been a cultural moment since they first appeared on stage (and on the page). In Coen’s adaptation, Kathryn Hunter portrays all three witches to a perfect tune. The film offers a kaleidoscopic view of Shakespearean witchery as the witches expand to three and contract back to one throughout. Hunter is the obvious scene-stealer throughout the film, particularly shining in her scenes with Washington. The film excels as an exercise in style. Its interpretation of a classic Shakespearean work is something to call home about. It’s, quite frankly, ridiculous that the film was not nominated for Best Picture at The Academy Awards because it’s as masterful in style and form as The Tragedy of Macbeth. Coen’s first solo directorial feature is a stunning feat and sets the bar high for any Shakespearean adaptations to come.