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The Tragedy of Macbeth: Shakespeare done right

ByReuben Bharucha

Jan 28, 2022
Ethan Coen leaving the press conference of True Grit at the Berlinale 2011Ethan Coen leaving the press conference of True Grit at the Berlinale 2011

Shakespeare adaptations are hard to pull off. The early attempts by Laurence Olivier are very close to theatre – with traditional costume, adherence to the original text, and dramatic acting. In a phrase: theatre on film. Other adaptations try to re-invent the plays, in an effort to make them more ‘relevant’ to present-day audiences.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a near-perfect adaptation precisely because it doesn’t do either. It does not shy away from making changes to the text and play but does not make them gratuitously or revel in them. The film is above all minimalist, focusing fully on the story – but has a clear overarching vision, highlighting the darker elements of the text. The performances are strong and engaging. Most importantly, it feels as though Joel Coen has used the medium of film to enhance themes in the story – making this adaptation feel more than worthwhile.

The film’s tone is established early on. Shot in black and white, with copious amounts of mist, the film feels otherworldly, strange, and unsettling. In some scenes, aspects of the environment become characters in and of themselves, from flocks of black, cawing crows to the omnipresent mist. This atmosphere is maintained throughout the film through all aspects of production, from the minimalist (and effective) production design to the sounds and music, heightening the effect of the action.

The performances are excellent. Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington (Lady and Lord Macbeth respectively) anchor the film through their relationship. But it is some of the side characters who are most engrossing. The three witches are all played by Kathryn Hunter in a perfectly unsettling and physical performance.

Coen uses the medium of film to highlight elements of the play that might be less emphasised on stage. Murder scenes, for example, are given a more heightened intensity than would be possible in a theatre. They heighten the cruelty of the play, which is placed at the forefront in this adaptation. As with many elements of the play, though, this is not overdone. It is depicted with understated intensity, not relishing in the violence, but all the more real because of it.

The film’s weakest moments stem from the text itself. As a play, Macbeth relies on soliloquys to reveal character motivations, inner thoughts and to develop the plot. On a stage this works quite well, with the actor expressing them through exaggerated gestures, looking into the middle distance, and so on. On film, that kind of theatrical acting doesn’t work, nor does Joel Coen try to get his actors to deliver such performances. Instead, the soliloquies are delivered more ‘naturally’. The problem with this is that those scenes are hard to follow. As with any adaptation of a famous piece of literature, the question audiences ask is why? Does the film have a point beyond a famous director’s vanity? In the case of The Tragedy of Macbeth, the answer is yes. Joel Coen’s take on the Scottish Play is dark, psychological, and abstract, hinting at larger forces beyond characters’ control – not reinventing the play, but reinvigorating it.

Image courtesy of ipernity.com via Wikimedia Commons

By Reuben Bharucha

Film and TV Editor