Despite being centuries old, there is endless merit in returning to the work of William Shakespeare. Perhaps more than any writer, his work has transcended time, place and form, not only being restaged and adapted countless times, but offering inspiration for new works. And for good reason - Shakespeare's plays are almost singular in world literature; a giddy combination of dense philosophical musings, exquisite poetry and bawdy entertainment. The issue that arises though - especially from those works that have been revisited more than others - is what a new adaptation has to offer over those that have come before it. To not find something new to say is not a fault of the source text (those plays are bottomless wells of ideas and conundrums) but of the adaptor. When a text is this rich, to not offer something equally as rich in execution is a missed opportunity.
'Macbeth', one of Shakespeare's greatest plays (and I would argue, the greatest), is one of those text artists keep finding themselves returning to. It's no wonder, what with the intoxicating riddle of destiny versus free will at the heart of it, woven around an unnerving story of revenge and ambition. Unusually though, while 'Macbeth' on the page is a nail-biter, in execution it has often disappointed. On film, the finest version is easily Akira Kurosawa's magnificent 'Throne of Blood' (1957), but this is a more free adaptation, using the play as a starting point. Despite some coming close (Roman Polanski in 1971, Orson Welles in 1948), no film using Shakespeare's original text has been able to match the enormity of the words themselves. This failure is, in itself, a conundrum. What about this play, inherently cinematic and incredibly dramatic, makes it so difficult to adapt to the screen? For this reason, there was a lot of excitement about the prospect of Oscar-winning filmmaker Joel Coen ('Inside Llewyn Davies', 'Fargo') taking on this most wicked of Shakespeare's plays with his film 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' - especially with Denzel Washington ('Fences') and Frances McDormand ('Nomadland'), two of the finest actors in the world, stepping in as the legendary leads. This could finally be an adaptation worthy of this masterpiece.
Coen (who has also adapted the text for the screen) remains deeply faithful to the original play. At a mysterious meeting with three witches (Kathryn Hunter), Macbeth (Washington) is told that he will one day rise to the throne of Scotland, but isn't told how. Driven by the ambitions of his wife Lady Macbeth (McDormand), the couple devise a plan where Macbeth assassinates the reigning King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson, 'Paddington 2'), blaming the murder on his guards. The plan succeeds, and Macbeth is crowned monarch, but his paranoia of discovery and her building guilt begin to tear their minds apart at the seams.
There are two fundamental aspects of 'Macbeth' that stagings of the play often neglect - that it is a narrative built on and by the importance of sound, and that it is, at its very root, a work of horror. Joel Coen is the rare filmmaker to demonstrate an understanding of these aspects of the text, especially with the unearthly and hypnotic soundscape constructed by sound designer Craig Berkley and his team. Rather than leaning into any kind of realism, Coen's approach with 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' is to visually realise the maze-like psychology of the story, pulling on abstract and impressionist early cinema as inspiration. There's a clear line from the Escher-like edifices of Stefan Dechant's production design and Mary Zophres' costumes to the work of legendary Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer, especially his powerful 1928 film 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'. The spaces created in this film feel like a labyrinth of the mind, constructed through the play of shadow and light against imposing, bleak manmade structures. Even the relationship with nature (another important aspect of 'Macbeth') feels controlled and inhuman, as if the world we have stepped into is one of the pure subconscious. The playground for this tragedy is then captured by the careful and deliberate framing of cinematographer Bruno Delbonell, with the 1.33:1 framing and gorgeous black and white photography creating an even stronger link with both the work of Dreyer and other early and deeply psychological Shakespearean adaptations from the likes of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier.
All of this becomes clear mere minutes into the film, and certainly adds to the anticipation that we're about to see something special, but while Joel Coen's 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' is an aesthetic triumph (albeit ultimately a derivative one), it ends up being little more than that. For a play filled with violence, paranoia, madness and passion, this 'Macbeth' is surprisingly cold, the directorial approach as distant as the aesthetic. The problems begin to emerge with the arrival of McDormand. She should be a slam-dunk as Lady Macbeth, and yet her performance lacks depth or subtext. Her reading of some of the greatest speeches in literature is almost perfunctory, surprisingly straightforward. This issue permeates every aspect of 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'. There's nothing new being offered here; no new perspectives or bold choices. There isn't even the joy of watching great actors tear the text apart. Denzel Washington is certainly stronger than McDormand, but you don't feel a directorial hand encouraging to dig deeper, dig further. Despite the inherent drama of the play or the slide towards madness, the film lacks any real tension or sense of inevitability. Coen seems far more interested in constructing the world than worrying about the characters in it.
While Joel Coen's 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' is an aesthetic triumph (albeit ultimately a derivative one), it ends up being little more than that.
This is at its worst with the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Theirs is one of the most fascinating in literature, with mountains of history buried between every line they say to one another. It is her influence that drives him forward, her ambition that fuels his, and in order for us to feel anything towards them when she ultimately takes her life in the final act, we need to have some sense of their worth to one another from the beginning, whether that be intense love or desperate need. This film offers neither, less partners in love and marriage than collaborators on a project, and as a consequence Washington offers very little in terms of a response to losing her. Their relationship is the fire that fuels this narrative, and this adaptation quenches that fire almost from the beginning.
There are some noteworthy performances, such as Gleeson as the gentle Duncan or Alex Hassell as the scheming Ross. Corey Hawkins ('In The Heights') has the difficult task of playing Macduff, the man who ultimately destroys Macbeth. This is the weakest of the characters in the original text, but an actor as charismatic as Hawkins should have been able to make something of it. He suffers a similar fate to McDormand and Washington though, lacking a clear directorial hand to guide him. The triumph of 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' - in concept, in execution and in performance - is the representation of the witches, here played entirely by British theatre great Kathryn Hunter. Her performance is the only example of the film having any kind of new conceit or concept, Hunter playing all three at once. At times she appears as three personalities speaking in the one body, at others those three personalities existing as dark physical entities. Her physical and vocal control are extraordinary, her interpretation of the iconic figures playful and rich. The moments with the witches are the highlights of the film, where an aesthetic conceit marries beautifully with the inherently unnerving text. In fact, Hunter's work is so startling that Coen's direction always feels one step behind her, his directorial choices never quite matching what she is giving him. If 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' was to have any awards prospects, a nomination for Kathryn Hunter in Supporting Actress would be both justified and just.
I had hoped that Joel Coen's 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' would leave me exhilarated and buzzing with new questions about this most extraordinary of plays. Instead it left me baffled, fixated on only one question - what was the point? I didn't leave with a fresh perspective on the play, and apart from Kathryn Hunter's performance, wasn't offered any moments of surprise and awe. Even Justin Kurzel's 2015 film gave me something to be impressed by. The conceit of using the work of early cinema and Carl Theodor Dreyer as inspiration also left me unimpressed in the end, the whole aesthetic world of the film failing to support the drama occurring in it. By the end, all I could surmise was that 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' exists because it can, as a technical exercise for director and cast rather than a vital revisiting of a classic. It isn't a terrible film by any stretch, but it certainly isn't a memorable one. In the theatre, there is a superstition that the play itself is cursed, and saying its name aloud in a theatre will guarantee calamity. Maybe that curse extends to cinema, but in that a truly great film of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' will always be just out of arm's reach. I mean, if one of the Coen Brothers can't make a great film of 'Macbeth' with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, then who can?