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1st February 2022

The Tragedy of Macbeth: Joel Coen avoids tragedy in this masterful reimagining

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is an aesthetic dream that artfully shakes up the Shakespeare cliches of the last decade and offers something truly unique.
The Tragedy of Macbeth: Joel Coen avoids tragedy in this masterful reimagining
Photo: Macbeth, Shakespeare: the three weird sisters Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images [email protected] Macbeth, Shakespeare: the three weird sisters, Henry Fuseliafte @wikimedia commons

When I first heard about Joel Coen’s upcoming adaption of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I was left slightly bemused. Why revisit a text that has arguably been done to death? Why now? As far as I’m aware we aren’t currently gripped by a Shakespeare fervour, a cultural yearning for early modern theatre.

And yet The Tragedy of Macbeth manages to do something new, and incredibly beautifully, with this tragedy. Coen’s black and white drama captures what we’ve lacked in every previous iteration of the famous Scottish Play- the sheer weirdness of it. Whether its Kathryn Hunter’s chillingly physical performance as the three witches (yes, she plays all three at once) or the strangely hypnotic shapes cast by the wonderfully lit sets, this version of Macbeth is as visually intriguing as it is dramatic.

Opening with the now infamous line; ‘When shall we three meet again’ audiences first see Hunter covered in a weather beaten cloak hunched, birdlike on the moor. The weird sisters have seen many incarnations, some definitely better than others. And yet seeing this decrepit shape mumbling the play’s opening lines and pecking at the ground felt like a wholly new, rather disturbing experience.

Coen has somehow taken a staple of weirdness and made it even stranger with the unusual decision to house multiple personalities in a single body. Let me tell you, it works. From there we are introduced to Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) who are confronted by the strange witch. Macbeth is told that he will be named the Thane (Lord) of Cawdor and then after that, King. The scene is one of the most chilling of the film.

Initially sceptical, Macbeth is soon rewarded  for his wartime successes and is named Thane, quickly renewing his faith in the witch’s prophecy. Fuelled by greed and ambition, Macbeth and his scheming wife (Francis McDormand) begin to plot the King’s downfall and claim the throne for themselves. Using Shakespearean language throughout, the play stays true to its original source material and follows a now well-known trajectory. Macbeth kills King Duncan (‘is this a dagger before me’), becomes King, kills more people and is eventually overthrown after another, even stranger prophecy comes true. All pretty standard.

Except it’s not. The black and white colour palet combined with the geometric artificial edges of the set design creates an unusual detachment from the events going on. The whole event feels not quite real. Audiences will view the film almost like a play, strangely distant and full of drama that seems just out of reach. On the one hand it loses the dramatic gravitas many attach to Shakespeare’s more notorious works. It means that despite the intrigue and visually arresting quality, viewers can never really empathise or feel immersed in this strangely spectral world. The performances, whilst all excellent, feel largely individual, a soliloquy here, a soliloquy there, but nothing that really unites its characters, or gives the impression that they are interacting within the same world.

However, it’s worth saying that this isn’t really a criticism of the film. In fact, it is this detachment that makes the tragedy what it is. Audiences have got far too comfortable with Shakespeare going through the motions, standardising moments of drama and occasionally offering as a slightly different vision of spectral terror or jealous rage. This film offers something completely unique.

Joel Coen clearly understands the text he’s working with. And it really shows. The awkwardness, the slight detachment of The Tragedy of Macbeth renders it all the more engaging, appealing in the fact that it doesn’t quite feel real. Whilst it follows a narrative we all know well, the prevalence of such surrealism, the meticulous focus on the its weirdness, enables Coen to retell the story in a way that resists categorisation whilst paying homage to the number of discrepancies in the original play.

McDormand shines as ever in the role of Lady Macbeth, perhaps the most threatening and unstable version of the character witnessed on screen to date. Washington similarly plays the title role with admirable reserve. You can feel him holding back inside, writhing with ambition and guilt until it bursts out as he realises his world is crumbling around him. Neither are sympathetic, neither admirable. This humanising is one area where the film falls short of the original text, but perhaps thats the point?

Importantly, The Tragedy of Macbeth recognises that it doesn’t need to be easy. It undeniably has its flaws. Some viewers may hate the artificial feel and staged appearance. Others, the language and absence of traditional Shakespearean drama. But central to the film is something all filmmakers should be aspiring towards. A preoccupation with reinvention, a realigning that makes old texts, old forms and old characters all the more thought provoking.

And so, to answer my initial question, why now? Simply put, don’t we all need a bit of change? Don’t we all need the old formulas of the last few years to be shaken up a bit?


The Tragedy of Macbeth is in cinemas now.

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