Director Joel Coen’s stylized rendition of Shakespeare’s classic meditation on ambition speaks to the troubles in our own times.
‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, which premiered on Apple TV+ on January 14 after a very limited Christmas Day theatrical release, is an intriguing film for a variety of reasons.
The first is that it boasts a bevy of star power, including two-time Oscar winner and American acting icon Denzel Washington as Macbeth, and three-time Best Actress Oscar winner Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth.
Secondly, it’s the first film directed by a single Coen brother. Academy-award winners Joel and Ethan Coen are one of the most iconic directing duos in Hollywood history, but for ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, Joel Coen is flying solo – a first for the brothers.
And finally, it’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for God’s sake! One of the greatest plays of all time written by the greatest playwright of all time.
The result of this witch’s brew of star power, directing style, and William Shakespeare is a film that, while flawed, may very well be the best film of 2021.
That statement obviously requires context, but the art of cinema was in such a dire and dismal state last year that any discussion about it, well, to quote the Bard, “when ’tis done then ’twere well it were done quickly.”
In brief, cinema in 2021 was as Macbeth himself might have described it, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
If I’d have seen a dagger before me, I would’ve grabbed it and plunged it deep into the heart of 2021, with its abundantly awful films, putting them out of their misery and me out of mine.
That is to say that ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is both not as great as it could be but much better than most, making it akin to being the tallest dwarf in the Lilliputian land of cinema.
What I liked about it was that Coen made a bold stylistic choice and didn’t deviate from it. The film is made in the style of German Expressionism, with its black-and-white color scheme, sparse sets, straight lines, sharp angles, and great heights.
German Expressionism came to the fore in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, with the most famous films of this school being ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and ‘Nosferatu’. As German directors came to Hollywood, so their style came with them and became prominent in horror and film noir.
Coen’s decision to use German Expressionism to tell the tale of a Scottish warrior falling victim to his own ambition speaks to the current, decadent state of America, where unbridled ambition isn’t just everything – it’s the only thing.
Just as some interpreted the German Expressionism of the 1920s as a manifestation of the fragile collective unconscious of Weimar Germany and the impending embrace of stark totalitarianism in the form of Nazism and the Third Reich, Coen’s use of it in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ could be interpreted as a bold statement regarding America’s dire future as well as its current sickened consciousness, political polarization, violent impulses, and moral degradation.
Regardless of why he deployed it, the stark style and intimate staging on display suits the story and is very pleasing on the eye. Also pleasing are some of the performances.
The great Denzel Washington plays Macbeth with a profound weariness that infects his every thought and movement. For Denzel’s Macbeth, heavy lies even just the thought of the crown, never mind the actual wearing of it.
As good as Denzel is – and he’s very good – veteran stage actress Kathryn Hunter, who plays all three of the witches, steals the show. Her acting mastery is stunning to behold, and, combined with Coen’s creative staging of the witches’ scenes, it makes for truly glorious cinema.
With all that having been said, and as much as I liked ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, it isn’t flawless. For example, Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is surprisingly subdued and seemingly out of sync. As strange as it is to say about an actress with such a stellar resumé, McDormand seems overwhelmed at having donned the mantle of Lady Macbeth, and gives an uneven performance as a result.
Another issue was that the hour and 45-minute film felt a bit rushed and lacking in deeper emotional connections. These could have flourished if they’d been given more time. Denzel’s Macbeth and McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, in particular, lacked a coherent and visceral emotional connection to one another, which undermines the power of the film.
The thing that galled me most, though, was Coen’s staging of the great “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, which is among the greatest ever written. Coen has Denzel do that powerful monologue as he aimlessly walks down a flight of stairs, which dilutes and distracts from the potency of that sacred speech, rendering it flaccid and forgettable.
Nonetheless, I did greatly enjoy ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’. It features a powerful performance from Denzel Washington and striking style from director Joel Coen, making it one of the very best films of the year.
But be warned, if you’re not an adherent of the arthouse and a classical theatre devotee, then you’ll probably just find this movie pretentious and frustrating. This is not popular entertainment. It’s solely for cinephiles and Shakespeare aficionados – everyone else would be advised to stay well clear.