Starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, The Tragedy of Macbeth marks Joel Coen’s directorial debut with his brother Ethan. Premiering at this year’s New York Film Festival, it is the latest English-language adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy following Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.
Similar to Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth has been adapted numerous times on screen in both traditional and modern settings so it is hard to imagine what else can be done with the source material. Therefore, it feels unsurprising that Joel Coen’s first solo directorial film is something that resonates with most audiences.
His adaptation is mostly faithful to the original play with its Shakespearean dialogue and rustic costume design, along with the structural similarities of a theatre production. However, there are other elements that elevate this seemingly simple foundation. Filmed on sound stages in black and white, there is a heightened feeling of a detached reality that emphasises the unsettling undertones of the original play. But this is not to say that this is a completely minimalist work – a smattering of special effects and visual imagery, not to mention the use of sharp shapes and symmetrical composition, echoes the film’s sense of mystery and imposing doom while Amelié cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel cleverly uses lighting to increase the protagonists’ paranoia as characters covertly lurk in the darkness.
The stark visuals also reinforces The Tragedy of Macbeth‘s impressive colourblind casting, which not only includes Washington in the eponymous role but also Corey Hawkins as Macduff, Sean Patrick Thomas as Monteith, and The Queen’s Gambit actress Moses Ingram as Lady Macbeth. Thankfully, the cast do not delve into variations of Scottish accents so audiences can focus on their interpretations of the text. Washington’s physical performance reflects the ambitious and tortured soul of his character while McDormand plays Lady Macbeth wonderfully with her hushed whispers and cold demeanour. A special mention needs to go to British actress Kathryn Hunter, whose physical performance as the witches brings in the creep factor that sinisterly puts Macbeth onto an irredeemable yet impossible future.
Overall, The Tragedy of Macbeth is another faithful adaptation of the original narrative, but it doesn’t stop it from it being aesthetically striking and deeply disturbing. Anchored by two powerhouses of the acting world, it is easy to get sucked into Coen’s bold vision.
Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling
Runtime: 105 minutes