Given how often William Shakespeare’s works have been adapted and recontextualised over the years, a faithful telling of his works is more the exception than the rule. One of the Bard’s earliest works, “The Comedy of Errors”, a farcical laugher that is oft forgotten when looking at his body of work as a whole, could be viewed as something of an inspiration for filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen when detailing their filmography, which in turn makes them suitable candidates to tackle such literary heft – one where the suffering is as great as what the Coens administer to their players.
It isn’t quite the Coens here though as it is a Coen – Joel, to be precise – working singularly to do all he can to bring out a sense of originality in a tale that has so often been told before; The Tragedy of Macbeth sitting as the story’s 46th incarnation. Aesthetically one of the most visually stunning films of the year, Coen’s black-and-white framing and choice of blurring the lines between stage and screen with production design that is at once vast as it is restrictive lends the film an almost supernatural quality. As striking as the staging is, the unfortunate reality, or should that be the tragedy, is that the film itself can only push its boundaries from a visual standpoint, with the script merely rehashing Shakespeare’s words.
The story here seldom deviates from the expected, with Scottish lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington, leaning far too heavily into the “playing for the back of the room” mentality) eyeing for the throne, his murderous mind manipulated by a visiting trio of witches (Kathryn Hunter, immaculately unnerving in a contorting performance that stands as the film’s most memorable) who assist in him conspiring to kill the king (Brendan Gleeson) in order to seize power. With his wife alongside (Frances McDormand who, like Washington, opts for a more theatrical approach in her delivery), this position of power proves less enticing than advertised, with paranoia eventually overcoming his psyche to the point of violent delusion.
Whilst my criticisms of Washington and McDormand’s performance may be redundant to some – Shakespeare’s very words often give licence to overt theatrics – they ultimately do so little with the material that one could say the rise to the occasion without ever transcending. The pair are undoubtedly two of the finest actors of their generation, but both of them aiming for the subtlety-void temperament within their delivery only hinders them when so many of the talented performers around them appear much more grounded in their approach; even someone like Hunter, whose role is the epitome of theatrics, manages to evoke a sense of genuine menace with a performance that feels startlingly real despite the character’s gothic extremities.
Though puritans may see the triumphantly bold nature of Coen’s intention, The Tragedy of Macbeth rarely offers anything new to Shakespeare’s work. Attention is consistently commanded throughout thanks to the inventive set design, the fluidity of the film’s editing and the stunning soundscape, but these distractions from the prose prove that the real tragedy here is how ordinary a film this really is when stripped back.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently screening in select Australian and American theatres. It will be launched globally on Apple TV+ on January 14th, 2022.