The Tragedy of Macbeth, 2021, directed by Joel Coen — 4.5/5 Stars
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the violent tale of ambition and destiny, has seen countless film adaptions. There is little that hasn’t been done when it comes to bringing it to the silver screen; even Orson Welles, arguably the most influential filmmaker of all time, tried his hand at a version of the play. Joel Coen’s 2021 adaption, though, is undoubtedly expertly crafted and unique, establishing itself not only as a faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s writing, but also as a singular piece of art. Shot in striking black and white with a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, the film is brought to life with a solid, committed cast; dramatic, surreal lighting compositions; and set design and costuming that pay homage to the story’s origins on the stage. The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of the best films of the past year.
Denzel Washington stars as the titular king, delivering a performance that feels appropriate but forceful, tackling the difficult challenge of bringing the audience to empathize with a murderous, power-hungry fool. Beside him is Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, who gives a strong performance as well, but doesn’t impress as much as she has in past work. The real star of the show, though, is Kathryn Hunter as all three of the famous witches. Predominantly a stage actor, Hunter has a bone-chilling, gravelly voice that is accentuated by a haunting echo. Her physicality is animalistic and unnatural, and her enormous black cloak establishes her in each scene as supernatural and imposing.
While the cast is a crucial piece of the puzzle, the core element that allows the film to flourish is its use of light and shadow that makes nearly every shot beautifully composed. It’s clear Coen was inspired by Welles’ adaption, as well as Swedish surrealist Ingmar Bergman, and even draws elements from the French New Wave and classical Hollywood. The entire film is characterized by hard, distinct shadows cast to one side of the screen. Light is also used to isolate elements of scenes; on more than one occasion, characters float in a bright bubble of light through an otherwise completely unlit set. These cinematography choices are also helped by the very intentionally designed structures, bearing inspiration from angular brutalist architecture. The actors wear simple, loosely fitting costumes, reminding the audience of Shakespeare’s original, stage-oriented vision. The 4:3 aspect ratio also harkens back to the stage, but tight, cramped closeups on the characters’ faces accomplish moments of genuine emotion and distress that wouldn’t be present in a theater production.
While it would be impossible to adapt a Shakespeare play in a way that feels wholly original, Coen uses a mishmash of elements and homages in such a cohesive way that he gets surprisingly close. By combining visuals from early surrealist filmmakers and procuring a dynamic and formidable cast, all while keeping the spirit of the source material, he ensures that The Tragedy of Macbeth feels distinct, fresh and beautifully impressive.