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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Review: An Expressionist Twist on a Shakespeare Classic

Dir. Joel Coen — 4.5 Stars

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand star in Joel Coen's rendition of the Shakespearean classic "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand star in Joel Coen's rendition of the Shakespearean classic "The Tragedy of Macbeth." By Courtesy of: Apple TV+
By Lanz Aaron G. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

Historically, adapting “Macbeth” into film has meant rich, detailed period pieces, from Orson Welles’ sweeping epic, to Akira Kurosawa’s visceral “Throne of Blood,” to Justin Kurzel’s luscious Palme d’Or contender. That’s what makes “The Tragedy of Macbeth” feel remarkably fresh: Writer-director Joel Coen paints his latest film in unapologetic, ethereal strokes of black-and-white expressionism.

It’s interesting that Coen, known for interrogating and subverting old Hollywood genres, has chosen a Shakespeare adaptation as his latest film. Coen’s diverse work consists of biting, reflexive, and distinctly American satires, from Bush-era crime films like “Burn after Reading,” to existential comedies like “Barton Fink,” to masochistic rom-coms like “Intolerable Cruelty.”

Suffice to say, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is tonally different from Coen’s previous films — seething and haunting, rather than his usual mix of playful and cynical. That’s because story-wise, “Macbeth” retreads familiar territory: The titular Scottish general (Denzel Washington, in a towering, dynamic performance) encounters three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter), who prophesize that he would be King. Adamant and power-hungry, Macbeth and his wife (Frances McDormand) scheme to kill King Duncan. Once crowned, however, Macbeth’s tyranny sparks a civil war — and eventually, his downfall.

Coen adapts plot and dialogue extremely faithfully — characters even speak in Shakespearean English. But these artistic choices don’t make “Macbeth” any less subversive: On a formal level, it’s just as twisted and genre-bending as Coen’s previous work. For one, the film isn’t shot in ancient castles and expansive landscapes, like the many adaptations before it. It’s shot entirely in sound stages to remove any semblance of reality.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is not a film about “Macbeth” so much as it is a film about the theatrical production of “Macbeth.” Coen deconstructs the unique performativity, lighting, and staging of theater productions — pulling from the medium-specificity of stage to imprint a vibrant, visceral, and eerily artificial texture into his film. Speaking in an interview at the New York Film Festival with festival curator and Harvard Professor Dennis Lim, Coen said “I think this proceeded from [Frances McDormand] asking me to [direct “Macbeth”] on stage. I didn’t want to abandon the notion of the play. It was taking a play, and making a movie of it, which was interesting to me. Not turning a play into a movie.”

To create the impression of artificiality, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” relies heavily on visuals, with detailed compositions by 6-time Academy Award nominee Bruno Delbonnel. In his early work with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet on “Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” Delbonnel coated his film stock in a decadent layer of warm amber and nostalgic pastel green. His early characters popped off the screen with a zest that matched their passion for life. But Delbonnel used a more muted palette when he collaborated with the Coen brothers in “Inside Llewyn Davis” — while still using a surrealist license to capture the wistful alienation of artist ego.

Now, Delbonnel’s work in “Macbeth” takes surrealism a step further. Shot in black and white, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is steeped in German expressionism — mirroring character interiority through complex shapes and long shadows, and leveraging visual tension on screen to create mood and atmosphere. Delbonnel uses extremely dramatic, harsh, single-point lighting to draw haunting shadows that reflect characters’ deepest fears and feverish insecurities. These techniques are accentuated by gorgeous modern architecture and production design, which hangs over the film like a subconscious, unsettling, anachronistic cloud.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” was also filmed in black-and-white, and in a 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, to add multiple layers of reflexivity. In an interview at NYFF, Joel Coen explained the choices, saying that the idea of shooting “Macbeth” in black and white and in 4:3 was “there from the beginning… black and white is a way of instantly abstracting an image in a way that everyone understands. You’re abstracting it by taking the color away, but it’s not like people read it as being ‘abstract’ in quotation marks.” So, just as the film deals with the artificiality of theater, it draws the audience’s attention to artificiality within the film as well.

Overall, this sheen of artificiality enhances the most intense emotional moments in “Macbeth” to high-pitched sensory success. This hallucinatory atmosphere stretches from the mystical compositions when the witches appear, to the disturbing monologue in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, to the isolation at the end of the film, when Macbeth’s battle is lost, and he saunters — delusional — through the empty hallways of his once great castle.

Though “The Tragedy of Macbeth'' is a very different film from the rest of Coen’s filmography, complete with archaic English and a 400-year-old story, it still manages to feel incredibly modern. It’s a unique twist on one of Shakespeare’s classics — an adaptation that draws on, and self-awarely engages in, cross-medium artificiality.

—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at lanzaaron.tan@thecrimson.com and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.

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