One has to assume Ethan Coen didn’t fancy taking part in his brother’s new version of Macbeth. It’s also easy to imagine why brother Joel went ahead with the project, given that he’s been married to Frances McDormand since 1984, and she plays the plum role of Lady Macbeth here; there’s nothing like an ambitious wife to focus a man’s mind on the task in hand. Joel Coen’s version of William Shakespeare’s Scottish play, renamed The Tragedy of Macbeth, has a big star in the title role, Denzel Washington, but unlikely to reach a wide audience due to some strange and unnatural decisions by Coen himself.
Firstly, the film is presented in stark black and white, always a great way to send a high percentage of your potential audience in search of alternative entertainment. Secondly, it’s all shot in a 1940’s/50’s manner, with obvious studio sets and simple compositions; it looks much like an Orson Welles/ Mercury Theatre production, cool for cineastes, but not attractive to those keen on any kind of realism. There’s Carl Dreyer–levels of mist, lots of expressionist shadows and sharp angles, little spectacle and few outdoors scenes other than those shrouded in mist. Much like Justin Kurtzel’s ultra-drab 2016 version, we’re frequently in tents rather than intense, giving this a moody yet rather cheap Renaissance Fair vibe.
You probably know the story by now; Macbeth comes home from battle, gets passed over for his rightful place in the pecking order, gets bad advice from meddling contortionist witches and plots with his wife to kill the king, a short-cut to glory that does not go well for him. Washington captures the nobility of Macbeth, but not the hubris or the venality. McDormand is not surprisingly firing on all cylinders as Lady Macbeth, but largely drops out of the film as the story progresses along familiar lines, and none of the support make any impression. The violence is done with the edge you’d expect from A24, but that brittleness does not extend to the hammy monologing and very theatrical staging.
While potentially something of a coup for Apple TV in terms of awards traction, The Tragedy of Macbeth does not have the wit, panache or style of most of the Coen Brothers projects; it’s flat, faithful, and yet uncreative. Some striking moments, such as Macbeth seeing the dagger as a door-handle, reflect the intelligence of the creators, but such insights are fleeting, and the real tragedy of this Macbeth is that it’s much less cinematic than the 1971 film version, still the best version of the Scottish play to date. And rather than paying tribute to old movie styles, in today’s ethnically sensitive times, it would be great to see a version of Macbeth that doesn’t ignore the history or the Scottishness; Sean Connery’s version (link below) knocks Washington’s into a cocked hat.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is in UK and US cinemas now, on Apple TV from Jan 14th 2022.