The Tragedy of Macbeth: an Unsettling Take on the Classic Play

Photo Courtesy / YouTube A24

Photo Courtesy / YouTube A24

The story of Macbeth has been told for centuries. This latest adaptation, written and directed by Joel Coen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), was released in theaters on Dec. 24, 2021, and on AppleTV on Jan. 14, 2022. The movie is a chilling take of the classic Shakespeare play and has caught the eye of many critics; as with any Shakespeare adaptation, many critics worry that the material will be hard for the common moviegoer to understand. Mark Kermode of Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review writes, “I didn’t get a five-star feeling from it. It was interesting, but Macbeth can’t just be interesting.” Some may argue that directors cannot make Shakespeare interesting, but this film does the complete opposite. 

Audiences are introduced to power couple Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, who command the screen with their star power as an 11th century Bonnie and Clyde. Macbeth, who has just proven victorious in battle, is approached by three witches (all played by Katherine Hunter) who prophesied that he will soon be king. His wife urges him to murder the reigning king to snatch the throne. From there, the two slowly descend into madness and are overcome by the thought of power. 

Coen sets the film in a black-and-white world, filled with shadows and lots of air space. This choice focuses the audience’s attention on the actors who uphold the Shakespearean legacy. The production team used stage lights instead of traditional film lights to capture the characters and their ambitions and rarely used music in the film. Shooting the film in grayscale emphasizes the weird and unconventional plot of the play itself. The film has many breathtaking shots which look like they come straight out of a painting. Every shot is meticulously crafted and carries immense meaning. Towards the end of the film when Lady Macbeth reaches her lowest point, she stands at the edge of a cliff and the strong winds move her gown and hair. This shot represents how she has been so overcome with power. She lets go and lets the Earth control her. 

The standouts of the movie come from smaller supporting roles. Hunter’s performance as the witches was beyond exceptional. She has an enchanting ability to turn her body in odd ways, especially when she holds a severed thumb between her toes; she entices audiences when she speaks with her unsettling raspy voice. Alex Hassel’s performance as the traitorous Ross and Moses Ingram’s scorned Lady Macduff were equally notable, and the two made their small roles come alive in the short time they were on screen. 

Coen’s film serves as a masterclass in modern noir filmmaking and how to craft a near-perfect Shakespeare film adaptation. He achieved the hard task of not letting the images overtake the dialogue, and shows that a film does not need a big budget and intensely crafted scenes to be great.