William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of MacBeth, or commonly just MacBeth, is my favorite of all his plays. I believe A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the best comedy that I like. Hamlet is good but overrated and Romeo and Juliet is more about the dangers of adults feuding that it corrupts youth rather than a doomed romance about young love.
Most tragedy plays often deal with protagonists who were noble suffering bad events and ending badly with many deaths including the main characters’. But I would argue if MacBeth is actually a noble character. We’re only introduced to him after the three witches first senses his presence. And even though he’s given a promotion and acclaim, it’s not enough. He realizes that only to be king, he must kill King Duncan of Scotland and anyone who stands in his way. His wife, Lady MacBeth actually encourages it.
The Tragedy of MacBeth, which is Joel Coen’s first solo effort in filmmaking in nearly 40 decades, uses tragedy, I think, in the title as a joke. From the moment, we first meet MacBeth, he’s up to no good. It’s Scarface set during medieval times. Just like Tony Montana, MacBeth wants the world and everything in it.
This play has been done before on the big screen, by Orson Welles and by Roman Polanski in a very violent and gory adaptation. There’s even been a few loose adaptations such as Men of Respect, in which John Turturro played a Mafia mobster looking to get ahead. James LeGros played the role in a dark comedy Scotland, Pa., set during the 1970s. I would say Nicol Williamson did the best performance I’ve seen, but Williamson could’ve read the phone book and made it great.
Denzel Washington, who is one of the finest and best actors working now, plays the titular character. Frances McDormand, Coen’s wife, plays Lady MacBeth. It’s a perfect combination of two actors who show that even in their 60s, they still got it and they’re nowhere near backing down. The acting is one of the two ways you can critique a Shakespeare adaptation and Washington and McDormand perform well in their roles.
It’s hard to play a role like this on the big screen as most of the action is in dialogue. When Washington did Fences, it was very wordy, you learned about the characters through their interactions and having to listen to every word and tone. McDormand’s previous movie, Nomadland, had so many quiet scenes and moments in which people said more in body language than in dialogue.
The other way you can critique a Shakespeare adaptation is through its style and direction. Coen assembles a movie that looks like an a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Fritz Lang. This black-and-white style adds a surreal texture to the movie that color wouldn’t. I would even say it makes it more dream-like or should I say, nightmarish.
This is most useful during the scenes involving the three witches, all of which are portrayed by Kathryn Hunter in a creepy performance where at one point she contorts her body and speaks in a voice that reminds me of Mercedes McCambridge when she did the vocal work for The Exorcist. If Hunter doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, it’ll be one of the biggest snubs ever. She steals the scenes she’s in.
Just like a play, the scenery looks like it could be performed on a stage. But the scenery is reminiscent of the old-time movies filmed on soundstages. I would even say I was reminded of The Wizard of Oz, which adds to the dreamy-nightmarish world Scotland is in. The set dynamic reminds me of the 1985 television adaptation of Death of a Salesman in which the fakery was a symbol for the Loman family.
Here, I think the obviously fake impose some foreboding tone all over the movie. Some people have argued that the movie is more of a thriller. I’d argue that MacBeth is probably so well liked by modern audiences because it can be so similar to current movies in its design. MacBeth kills or orders others killed to get ahead until he does the wrong thing by having the family of MacDuff (Corey Hawkins) killed. And MacDuff along with Duncan’s son, Malcolm (Harry Melling) form an army to go after MacBeth and his people. This is basically the plot line of numerous modern movies.
Coen does cut some scenes from the play as the movie is only about 100 minutes long. This is a good runtime. There was that bloated four hour adaptation of Hamlet Kenneth Branagh did in 1996. Coen compiles a wide range of actors for the role. Brendan Gleeson plays Duncan in a perfectly cast small role. Stephen Root, who has appeared in previous Coen Brothers movies, has a nice comedic role as the porter who angers MacDuff. Brian Thompson, who mostly plays villainous characters in movies is one of Banquo’s killers. British stage actors Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel and Miles Anderson play characters, Ross, Banquo and Lennox respectively. This mixture of American movie actors and British stage performers is a nice blend.
Even though MacBeth is a very violent play, Coen keeps the violence at a minimum even though the murders of Duncan and MacDuff’s son probably earned the movie its R rating. The Coens are known to go for the extreme just as Albert Finney unloading a Tommy gun on gangers in Miller’s Crossing or that cattle gun killings in No Country for Old Men.
So much has been speculated on why Ethan Coen has taken a break or possible permanent retirement from filmmaking, I think Ethan might just be fed up with the current way studios are only making blockbusters and franchise movies nowadays. MacBeth does have a different look than previous Coen Brothers movies that might discourage some of their long-time fans. They don’t always make movies I like.
And I think many people will find themselves divided over this one, just like his previous works. I’m sure a lot of people with English backgrounds or a love for movies will like it. But many people expecting something else might not like the long dialogue. It’s hard to critique his solo effort because it’s not fair to compare it to his collaborations with Ethan. I will say his best since No Country for Old Men.
What do you think? Please comment.