“Less is Most”
Joel Coen’s take on the Shakespeare classic is efficient, minimal and thunderous. Forgoing any attempts to expand upon the story and instead simply showcasing it.
Macbeth is a story that has been told many times in countless ways, and it has evergreen themes that continue to be relevant and compelling to this day. Most of these adaptations look for a new angle or attempt to modernize the story to differing results. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Cohen strips away the elaborate effects, the widescreen aspect ratio, and even the color, leaving only Shakespeare’s prose emanating from some of the greatest actors of our generation.
The performances had me transfixed from start to finish. Denzel Washington gives one of the most emotional and physical performances of his career. As someone who considers himself a novice in regards to Shakespeare, I was able to follow the story mostly due to these nuanced and committed performers bringing it to life. Frances McDormand shines as Lady Macbeth, giving her character a cruel tenacity, yet never sacrificing her humanity. They are supported by a perfectly cast ensemble who all excel in their roles, but none so much as Kathryn Hunter. Even among these titans, Hunter’s performance is absolutely extraordinary, completely disappearing into the three prophetic witches that begin our journey. Her physicality, vocal intonations, and exaggerated expressions felt timeless and really accentuated the classic style that the film was referencing.
That style seems heavily inspired by the German expressionist films of the 1920’s. The aspect ratio, monochrome shots, and large barren sets, felt ripped out of Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is striking and desolate, injected with all the drama of a classic tragedy. This stark backdrop seemed to fit Shakespeare’s words like a glove. It was heightened but not distracting, and every element of the filmmaking felt wholly in service of the words and the people speaking them.
It was the humility and efficiency of the direction that I found most inspiring. Every frame of The Tragedy of Macbeth feels cinematic, yet nothing feels extravagant. There is simplicity and brutalism to the sets, lighting, and cinematography, that only seeks to serve the narrative and nothing more. Coen reframes some of the classic interactions such as the floating dagger or the witches cauldron, but instead of remixing or reimagining, he mostly strips away the excess, leaving an interpretation that keeps the focus completely on the characters and their plight.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a towering adaptation of a timeless story. The titular figure is beautifully brought to life by Denzel Washington. Joel Coen pays homage to the story’s theatrical roots using barren stages and desaturated faces, but instead gives us a much more intimate look at these doomed figures.