A few moments into The Tragedy of Macbeth, and you realize you’re in for an extraordinary cinematic experience.
Perhaps the expectations were already high. Oscar-winning filmmaker Joel Coen directs and writes his first feature film without his brother and collaborator Ethan’s involvement. The film is an adaptation of Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s legendary play about ruthless ambition, shameless brutality, and psychological destruction. Playing the iconic roles of Lord and Lady Macbeth are Denzel Washington, one of the greatest actors of the modern film era, and Frances McDormand, an effortlessly brilliant actress fresh off her third Best Actress Oscar for Nomadland. It’s an embarrassment of creative riches on paper. It doesn’t seem fair for it to work in practice.
And yet, with three black crows circling over a hauntingly desolate landscape, drenched in a hazy grayscale, Coen sets the stage for one of the most essential Shakespeare adaptations to ever come out of Hollywood.
Shakespeare’s stranglehold on English-language education, and his status as the pinnacle of the fictional written world, has made him a uniquely complicated artist to adapt. How does one bring life to what is widely considered perfection? Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing) and Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) stuck to the script and staged faithful recreations. Richard Loncraine (Richard III) and most famously Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet sought modernity through bold transmutation of the centuries-old material, updating setting and style to achieve cultural relevance.
For The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen pares down his adaptation to its barest essentials: sparsely-decorated royal residences and structures, nearly-barren landscapes, and relatively modest costuming. The starkly minimalist aesthetic recalls a stage production, where physical constraints push the script to consume as much of the audience’s imagination as possible. Coen advances that goal through his masterful command of the cinematic medium that other stage-to-screen adaptations can lack. The sets may seem small for a medieval kingdom, but he captures them with a consuming, sharply-angled eye that enforces grandeur. The striking black-and-white cinematography adds to the allure, allowing Coen to build a fully-formed and spectacularly engaging universe.
That sense of world-building is critical, given the complexity and density of Shakespeare’s dialogue. The Tragedy of Macbeth doesn’t treat its audience like it’s incapable of processing centuries-old language. However, it does offer a distinct, tangible visual vocabulary that makes it more accessible. Coen dials up the nightmarish atmosphere to its highest possible setting, but it never slips into distraction, even as the film modulates between reality and the supernatural. He fills the air with ruin and fragile sanity that compensates for any missed verbal nuances, as does his close camera focus on the Macbeths themselves, capturing the calculation behind every machination.
With such an assured filmmaker, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a sumptuous feast for its accomplished cast to sink their teeth into. Everyone is excellent in their own right, but the film is truly a showcase for Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, both at the height of their powers. McDormand is excellent as Lady Macbeth, the cunning queen who pushes her husband to horrific crimes for the sake of power. She is undeniably ruthless, but McDormand adds charges of urgency, doubt, regret, and disappointment that surprisingly deepens the role Shakespeare envisioned.
And then there is Denzel.
At this point, Washington’s singular excellence is an expectation. In the truest sense, he is a movie star, marrying razor-sharp technicality with an overwhelming screen presence and demonstrating excellent range while imbuing each role with his unmistakable essence. The Tragedy of Macbeth is thankfully not a capstone on his 40-year career, but it does feel like the performance he’s been working towards.
His Macbeth is fascinatingly complex: a man of substantial demonstrative power, weakened by self-doubt and age. His emotional and mental fragility is clear from the beginning, even as he gazes up, down, and ahead with withering imposition. As Macbeth fully descends into madness, Washington lets loose, weaponizing his immense charisma and curdling his trademark intensity into something truly unhinged and thrilling. The shadows of nearly every notable role he’s played since Glory walk alongside him as Macbeth. You can’t help being astonished by him. That he also devours Shakespeare’s dialogue without missing a single beat is just icing on the cake.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is as close to a perfect adaptation of Shakespeare as humanly conceivable. Bearing the hallmarks of its most successful predecessors, the film is faithful to the original text and in concert with modern sensibilities, without surrendering its distinct vision. With its visual splendor, thematic heft, and towering performances, it is inevitable that Coen’s masterwork will be the standard for introducing the works of William Shakespeare to newer generations. Assuming that comes to pass, his legacy couldn’t be in more accomplished hands.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently streaming on Apple TV+ (subscription required).