Each of Shakespeare’s many plays has been told in so many various different mediums and iterations that it is difficult to comprehend new and interesting versions of these same stories. Yet, as Joel Coen’s new film THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH shows, filmmakers can still reinvent these stories and create something fresh and creative. One of the most visually satisfying movies of 2021, MACBETH both showcases technological wizardry and serves as a powerful reminder of the universal themes that pervade Shakespeare’s tragedy. The film includes Denzel Washington with a stellar lead performance that will likely be considered the quintessential version of the famed character Macbeth for years to come.
When I say that THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play, I don’t mean that the film keeps the general story and makes the dialogue its own, similar to how The Taming of the Shrew was adapted into 10 Things I Hate About You. No, I mean that this film is word-for-word the original Shakespeare play, so much so that it often feels like watching a stage production onscreen. The very first scene contains a hefty monologue which brings much of the exposition needed to begin the classic tale, and even serves as a filter for those who aren’t aware they are about to watch a piece of Victorian literature. (I discerned the movie better than I thought, although I did have to rewind after the first 5 minutes and turn the captions on.) From then on, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is unique in that it manages to bring to life a classic tragedy with a long legacy while also proving to be a highly original experience.
The film owes its originality to the visual mastery displayed by director/writer Joel Coen and the incredible crew — namely director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. The film is shot in black and white, and on small sets, which gives the viewer a sense of confinement and insanity, and reminds one of the acclaimed 2019 film The Lighthouse. Every shot Delbonnel produces has an almost otherworldly nature to it, making Macbeth’s mental deterioration feel like a shared experience. Some of the more intangible aspects of Shakespeare’s play (the vision Macbeth has of the dagger, the three witches, the moving forest) are portrayed with a clarity that showcases the visual creativity of everyone involved with this film. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is easily one of the most well-shot movies of 2021, and it is a clear frontrunner for the Best Cinematography Oscar (especially because The Green Knight will likely be snubbed by the Academy).
Another aspect of MACBETH that elevates it above other adaptations is the lead performance from Denzel Washington. Saying that Washington gives one of the best performances of his career is a difficult statement given just how many amazing roles are in the running. The fact that this performance is anywhere near the top of his filmography should be an indication of the talent he demonstrates here. The way Washington delivers his Shakespearean dialogue allows the average viewer to understand the meanings behind each scene with clarity. All of the performances in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH are from good to great, but Washington is a reason alone to see this movie even for those who have no desire to see a Shakespeare adaptation.
Possibly the largest and only downside to THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is that the story has been told many times before, making the whole narrative a familiar one. However, the movie is so consistently original and refreshing that it supersedes any comparisons that could be made to previous adaptations. Macbeth has always been one of my personal favorite Shakespeare tragedies, so to see it told with such care and creativity at the forefront is immensely satisfying. Coen proves that he doesn’t need his sibling to direct a fantastic, award-winning film and crafts a literary essential in the process. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH may be getting some acclaim now, but in years to come it will be a definitive example of how Shakespeare can be adapted correctly into contemporary cinema.