“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” currently streaming on AppleTV+, is a weird masterpiece by filmmaker Joel Coen. Coen, along with brother Ethan Coen, is well known for directing thrillers like “No Country for Old Men” and comedies like “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” In “ The Tragedy of Macbeth” Coen ventures into new territory with a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic morality tale.
Shot in black and white, largely on sound stages rather than out in natural locations, this movie is great for anyone looking for a little variety in their media intake. However, it definitely isn’t a light watch. Vengeance, greed, ambition and fate are heavy themes that the movie explores. The film is relentless, offering few, if any, moments of levity.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is extremely well-acted. Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read but performed. The film showcases some great performances. Denzel Washington is incredible as Macbeth. He gives the audience a complex and paradoxical character; a man driven by ambition, with a conscience too weak to prevent terrible deeds but strong enough to plague him afterward. Frances McDormand is an excellently wicked Lady Macbeth. Their relationship is simultaneously heartfelt and destructive. The other characters are no less stellar. King Duncan, Banquo and Duncan’s sons are all fleshed out in a few scenes, which is essential when at least one of them will be killed off before the end of the first act.
Plays and movies each have different strengths and weaknesses, which begs the question: Why turn something that works so well as a play into a movie? “The Tragedy of Macbeth” uses the medium of film, specifically light, shadow and audio to heighten the suspense and discomfort of the original tale. It also shows Macbeth’s descent into villainy and madness.
Some may wonder if watching the movie is worth it, even after seeing the play. The answer is yes. Works of art don’t last only because they are surprising or twisty. They last for at least two other reasons. First, they can continually be reinterpreted and recontextualized to provide insight into each new generation’s problems. Second, they reach beyond cultures to who we are as human beings. They address universal themes that have been with us for the last few thousand years and will be with us well past the next thousand.
Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is a great story about the dangers of pursuing your ambition at the cost of others, and the ability we have to shape our own destinies, for good or ill. And in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” that story is well told in a fresh medium.