As more and more awards shows and critics circles start to release their nominations for this year, the Oscars race is finally starting to take shape. One of this year’s hopefuls is The Tragedy of Macbeth, an adaptation of the famous William Shakespeare play. The A24 film is directed by Joel Coen, half of the acclaimed Coen Brothers duo, in his first solo work and stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand who have 5 acting Oscars between them. Washington has been the awards standout so far, looking like a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. The screenplay, directing, and cinematography have also been rewarded with nominations but McDormand (quietly 1 win shy of tying the all time acting Oscars record) has been shut out thus far on the awards circuit. The film had a brief limited theatrical run starting on Christmas Day and is now available to stream at no charge on Apple TV+, looking to become the service’s first Oscar winner in any category. But is it any good?
As usual, I’ll give you quick overall thoughts and a letter grade right off the top then I’ll wax poetic afterwards. Review is spoiler free. Let’s get it.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is definitely not a film for everyone. Joel Coen’s adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play makes that clear immediately. Before anything is shown on the screen viewers are greeted by the voice of the magnificent Kathryn Hunter, who plays all 3 of the witches with a haunting, shape-shifting brilliance. Her prophetic opening monologue (is it still a monologue when you’re playing 3 different people but you’re talking to yourself?) sets up the next hour and 40 minutes perfectly, if you can focus on what she’s actually saying. It was a message to me to turn on subtitles right then and there because I had no clue what the hell was going on until I could read it. Coen has “dumbed down” the original Shakespeare dialogue to some extent, but without being able to read it on screen it still felt like listening to a foreign language.
In an additional bit of pretentiousness, similar to The Lighthouse – a film I hate but that’s not the point – The Tragedy of Macbeth is entirely in black and white and has an almost square aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Basically that means there will be black bars on the left and right filling the rest of your tv screen. This version of Macbeth is a far cry from the colorful and humorous blockbusters we’ve come to know and love today. But in my opinion, if you’re willing to invest the effort of putting on your #realcinemahours hat for an hour and forty minutes you’ll be rewarded. The Tragedy of Macbeth features a throwback to a compelling plot and style of storytelling that reveals themes still infinitely relevant today. It’s also got dazzling performances, stunning cinematography and a chilling, thudding sound design that you won’t hear matched anywhere else this #OscarsSZN.
Recommendation: Stream it with subtitles, an adult beverage, and minimal distractions if you’ve already got Apple TV+ and you can allow yourself to enjoy self-serious movies. Definitely don’t pay for Apple TV+ just to watch this.
A type of Shakespeare trutherism has become increasingly popular these days, especially among younger generations. “Shakespeare’s not even good, why did they make us read that in school? So BORING!” Those people are tripping, and modern classics that borrow heavily from good ole Billy Shakes like Lion King (Hamlet) and 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), recent releases like the remake of West Side Story (Romeo & Juliet) and the hype for the upcoming Robert Eggers viking film The Northman (Hamlet) all point to the enduring nature of Shakespeare’s work. The themes, plot devices, character work and story structures of Shakespeare are foundational to much of the Western media that has come since, even if the original language makes it difficult to follow at times. That is perfectly on display in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The basic outline of the plot is already compelling in and of itself. The synopsis reads, “a Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland. His ambitious wife will do anything to support him in his plans of seizing power.” I’m in instantly. But, like with all of the famous Shakespeare works, the real meat is in the character motivations that come out through both their words and their actions.
Joel Coen’s adaptation apparently simplifies the dialogue, but not so much that the average person would really notice. I’ve never read Macbeth in full and I haven’t seen the play performed so I can’t point out line by line differences myself, but some have criticized the film for going “too far” with trying to “normalize” Shakespearean dialogue. I have to disagree. For the vast majority of people watching this, there will never be a point where you hear the dialogue and think “yeah, this is normal. This is how normal people talk today.” For better or worse, it is impossible to forget that this movie is trying to be a #serious #film adaptation of Shakespeare. Elevated above the last Mickey Mouse-funded comedy/action-adventure you saw in theaters or even the last Coen Brothers black comedy you’ve seen.
From what I understand, Coen’s screenplay takes a few liberties with the original work. Certain scenes are combined, condensed, or reordered to make them work better for the screen. A character whose identity is a mystery in the original is revealed, adding additional layers to the plot. And most importantly the film ages up the characters (usually depicted in their 30s, now played by actors in their 60s) and it results in an interesting flip on one of the central themes. I want to focus on that last one. Hang with me here.
I don’t have to tell you that Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand can act their asses off. You already know that. You’ve seen Training Day. You’ve seen Fargo. The film knows that you know what’s up too. Coen calls plenty of isos for both of his leads so that they can both cook like peak Harden and CP3 on the Rockets. And The Tragedy of Macbeth never even bothers to acknowledge the question we’re all asking, which is “y’all can’t see that that dude is Black? That’s not weird to y’all?”. Instead choosing to just focus on how damn good Denzel and McDormand are at acting. But I think the biggest testament to the brilliance of their performances is how they free this movie from having to force common present-day storytelling conventions in to Shakespeare’s work.
A woman named Parul Seghal recently wrote an article called “The Case Against The Trauma Plot” in The New Yorker. In it, she lays out her issue with the popular trend of giving characters traumatic backstories and making their trauma – and the PTSD-induced flashbacks that come with it – the central orbit of the story. there are countless popular shows and movies of today that all feature flashbacks to traumatic moments in the characters’ past as the way to flesh out their characters and add depth. Whether it’s a drama like HBO’s Sharp Objects, a superhero sitcom parody like Wandavision or even a kid’s movie like Toy Story 2. You’ll often hear both storytellers and critics alike say something to the effect of “show, don’t tell” when it comes to backstory and exposition. That’s reasonable advice for the most part. But the great philosopher Future, in his epic poem titled “Jersey“, gave even better advice. Simply put, “you do what you want when you popping.” Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are popping.
The Macbeths do not have any living children in the original play or in this film, but Coen’s changes to the screenplay emphasize that fact. Aging up the characters and emphasizing that they do not have children adds an additional motivation to their actions. These are not simply two mustache-twirling evil people blinded by power and their own greedy ambition. They’re people grappling with their own mortality and the fact they do not and will not have heirs to carry on their legacy. Still greedy and evil, but operating from a premise that we can understand.
That additional bit of characterization, exposition and story depth doesn’t come from stopping the movie and flashing back to a heartbroken young Lady Macbeth watching her child die. You might expect that in other films or tv shows that are this self-serious the director would insist on tacking on an extra 20-minutes to the runtime and showing you exactly what makes these characters who they are. Launching a “Lady Macbeth did nothing wrong!” discourse on Twitter in the process. Instead, Washington and McDormand just tell you. Their performances are so strong that the way they “show” you their backstory is the heartbreak in their voices as they discuss it. It’s their movement, their bodies, their well-worn faces. Their past comes up naturally in the course of a conversation that logically would take place in this plot, and it keeps the plot moving forward.
That’s what I appreciated the most about The Tragedy of Macbeth. It feels like a movie that understands exactly what it is and why anyone would be watching it. It gives you only the exposition you need as it becomes relevant to the story, without ever slowing the momentum of that story. A rare feat in today’s movie landscape. Before you know it the film crescendos into an insanely compelling final 20 minutes where you get to see Denzel Washington whoop somebody’s ass in a sword fight.
The Tragedy of Macbeth teaches a haunting lesson about ambition and the ways that evil can only protect itself through more and more evil. If you can break through the language barrier, it’s a surprisingly universal message told through much more straightforward means than you’d expect for a film wrapped in so much pretentiousness.
But that’s always the way it goes with our friend Billy Shakes.
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