Does the world need another adaptation of a Shakespeare play? Hollywood has attempted to remake countless favorites like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and even Ghostbusters, but after 500 years, why are they still remaking Shakespeare? Because it’s good, that’s why. The age-old classic has stood the test of time, and the new adaptation by Joel Coen, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” proves it.
First things first, my biggest fear when watching a new adaptation of a Shakespeare play is that the plot will get lost in translation when adapted to the screen. The rustic dialogue, despite being modern English, is very flowery and intricate which can deter an unsuspecting viewer; just ask the lady who sat next to me in the theater, she left twenty minutes in and never came back.
Remarkably, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” checked all of my boxes of what I look for in an Oscar-season drama. Every detail of every scene serves to further the plot or deepen the complexity of the themes; the lighting, the costumes, the performances, the cinematography, aspect ratio, LITERALLY everything! It’s like watching a master class in how to make a film; Joel Coen is declaring his individuality and talent as a director through this film.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is the first film to be directed by a single Coen Brother, the famous duo who have made films such as “The Big Lebowski” and “True Grit.” I thought choosing to adapt a Shakespeare play as his solo directorial debut was a very bold move, due to the inaccessibility of the language and declining popularity in his syntax (ask any high school English student), but in “Macbeth,” Coen succeeds at every facet of film making; it’s as if he chose the story of “Macbeth” to act as a reliable foundation to test his film-making abilities.
What drew me to this film was its striking visual style. Evident in the trailers, the film was shot in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio; which looks like a square rather than the standard widescreen rectangle. This has become a popular trend, recently utilized in films like Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” (2019) and David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story”(2017) (coincidentally, all three of these films were produced or distributed by A24 Studios).
I was worried that the implementation of this overused trend would come off as shallow and cliché but Coen uses the format tactfully and intentionally. The square frame and the exclusive use of sound stages gives every sequence an ethereal quality, and the set design, built to complement the aspect ratio, uses an extensive amount of symmetry to enhance the effect of the liminal space.
The depiction of Macbeth’s castle, the primary setting of the film, reminds me of an M.C. Escher painting; there’s nothing but spacious, blank walls and steep unending stairs everywhere. The minimalist and modern aesthetic of the set-design pairs brilliantly with the absence of color and the way the film employs lighting.
I could not believe how much the filmmakers could achieve through lighting despite the lack of color. The sharp edges of the walls and windows, along with the towering arches and the long, narrow hallways create a lot of straight lines in the picture and the clarity of these lines allows the filmmakers to emphasize the use of shadows.
A simple turn of the head could either bathe the performer’s face in light or shroud it in darkness and the filmmakers take advantage of this to emphasize the tone of the scenes. They combine these epic bouts of dialogue with fast cuts and dynamic editing to keep the plot moving even through long spans of dialogue. Despite most of the movie consisting of people talking in rooms, the film maintains a driving momentum meant to keep the audience invested.
Coen’s team was astounding behind the camera but also in front of it. The eponymous Macbeth is played by Denzel Washington and Lady Macbeth is played by Frances McDormand.
Washington’s performance is fluid and dynamic; he portrays his character’s shift from powerful leader to maniacal murderer with such gradual change and nuance, which in my opinion, surpasses the performance of Sir Patrick Stewart as the new exemplary standard for this character. McDormand thrives as Lady Macbeth, her countless monologues and her chemistry with the rest of the cast elevates everyone’s performances, and despite the repute of both actors, their convincing and compelling performances immerses them so deeply into their characters that I begin to forget that they’re actors.
Despite my obvious infatuation with “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” I did have one minor complaint. I think this film would have benefitted from being shot on film rather than what looks to be digital. Every shot of this movie is like a painting; watching it on the big screen was a feast for the eyes. Sometimes I would tune out from the story and just soak in how magnificent the images were, but I couldn’t help wishing it had been captured on film stock.
The sharp clarity of the picture gave the lines and shadows a lot of distinction, but overall the images looked a little too clear and inorganic. The use of film stock would have given the images a stronger degree of visual texture, and that delicious visual graininess would have been the final stroke of the paintbrush that I needed.
Regardless, I could go on about how great this movie is. I haven’t even mentioned the ravishing costumes or the outstanding performances from the rest of the cast, but unfortunately, I would run out of pages before I covered it all. Instead, you can find out how good it is for yourself! The film is now available in select theaters and premiered for streaming on Apple TV+ Friday, January 14th.
Written By: Tony Le Calvez