Shakespeare often commands one’s full attention in order to understand the intricacies of The Bard’s immortal words. As such, it’s odd that a streamer like Apple TV+ is behind the nuanced and slow paced The Tragedy of Macbeth. In its dark, minimalistic style, Joel Coen’s latest film stands out from comfort passive watches like Ted Lasso or CODA on the platform.
The tale of Macbeth is centuries old: The Thane of Cawdor (Denzel Washington) receives a prophecy of royalty from three ethereal witches (Kathryn Hunter) and commits himself to use any means necessary to ensure that the crown of Scotland will rest on his head.
Joel Coen makes almost no changes to the lines of the original play, giving another opportunity for The Bard’s words to be experienced by a contemporary crowd. In fact, the bare costumes and sleek, concrete, art deco set design make the actual environment nearly invisible, leaving the audience to only focus on the actors and their deliveries of murderous soliloquies.
The performances in question are filled with fury and fiery passion. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand bring a frantic, desperate energy to their characters that lends a unique angle to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively. In nearly all of the silver screen adaptions of the play, Macbeth is played by a middle aged man, whose eagerness to rule becomes his downfall. In The Tragedy of Macbeth though, the more mature ages of the actors makes it as though the couple are tired of being passed over by unqualified youths and act out to ensure their desires are fulfilled before they perish.
One must also mention Corey Hawkins’ fantastic supporting role as Macduff. Hawkins’ performance is emotionally raw and bursting with rage. His scene with Washington is like a passing of the torch, as Hawkins is primed to be the next Hollywood ingénue.
Unfortunately, The Tragedy of Macbeth is gripping enough for those who are not already well-versed in Shakespearean tragedies. The stripped down costumes and production design are the film’s greatest tragic flaws. Coen allows his actors the ability to show off their immense talents without any sort of background dressing, but at the same time, it makes the film often feel like an upgraded recording of a National Theatre production.
The establishing shots are visceral and some of the finest cinematography of the year. But then the camera reverts to more traditional shot compositions which give the film its live theater sensibilities.
Or perhaps, the threadbare design of the film highlights the true misfortune of Macbeth. The character’s greatest tragedy is not his lust for power, but rather that he is doomed to repeat his mistake for all eternity. The empty halls are like a liminal space where Macbeth’s spirit is forced to relive his misconstrued grasps at power for the entertainment of audiences. Just as we are subject to adaptations ad nauseum of Shakespeare, so too are the characters forced to act out their flaws for infinity.
The Silver Lining
While the entire cast of The Tragedy of Macbeth is marvelous, Kathryn Hunter gives one of the best supporting roles of the year as the witches. While there are traditionally three actors who play the three witches, Hunter plays all three concurrently, using various voice patterns to differentiate them from one another. Her overall screen presence is otherworldly and deeply unnerving. Even though Hunter only appears in two scenes, her performance resonates long after the credits roll.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing in select theaters and will release on Apple TV+ January 14th.