Joel Coen should never be underestimated. Shakespeare is his new feature in a year when nine of the top-grossing films are part of a franchise. The film was shot entirely on soundstages, using abstract, Expressionistic sets. It’s only available in black and white. The stars are all over the age of 60.
It’s not a sure thing, but Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is one of the best films of the year, and one of the best Shakespeare adaptations on screen.
When a play has been played onstage for 400 years and has been filmed numerous times by directors such as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski, it’s difficult to bring anything fresh to the table. However, Coen makes the subject feel fresh and urgent, and it’s packed with potential Oscar possibilities such as Coen, Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and the craftspeople.
“Macbeth” debuted in theaters on Christmas Day and will be available for viewing on Apple TV+ on January 14.
Backstage, it is forbidden to disclose the title, but only to refer to it as “the Scottish play,” according to a theatrical superstition. The generally accepted reason is that it has a history of misfortune; one account is that the actor playing Lady Macbeth died on the night of the play’s debut, forcing Shakespeare to step in, and that this was followed by centuries of trouble-plagued plays.
That’s possible, but another theory is credible: Ever since Shakespeare wrote it early in the 1600s, “Macbeth” has been a crowdpleaser. And when theatrical managers would tour their plays around the country, if their shows weren’t selling well, they would add “Macbeth,” which guaranteed good box office. So whenever actors heard “Macbeth,” it meant their company was likely having financial troubles.
“Macbeth” is great material. Like recent hits such as “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” it is filled with plots and counterplots, sometimes with guilt, sometimes in cold blood. Plus it has insight into human nature, beautiful poetic language, violence and witches. What’s not to like?
From the beginning, filmmakers noticed the surefire content, including an 1898 short and a nine-minute version in 1908. Variety stated in a 1971 review of Polanski’s adaption that it was the 16th known film version. In 2022, IMDb listed more than 100 projects, including Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the title role, directed by Rupert Goold, and Patrick Stewart in the title role, directed by Rupert Goold (2010).
There have also been international versions, such as Japan’s “Throne of Blood” in 1957. Variety lauded Toshiro Mifune’s “ranting, raging, rooting, tooting performance” and Kurosawa’s “masterful direction” in its review. The critic mourned the loss of Shakespeare’s vocabulary in translation, but praised the “success of mood and photographic creativity,” wishing it had been in color rather than B&W — “because the element of surprise goes when one beholds what these artisans have produced in two fundamental colours.”
Coen’s rendition keeps the vocabulary and meets Kurosawa’s artisans’ achievements.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth,” produced by Coen, McDormand, and Robert Graf, features a long list of collaborators, including director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, production designer Stefan Dechant, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Carter Burwell, sound designer Craig Berkey, and editor Lucian Johnston (working with “Reginald Jaynes,” Coen’s nom de editing).
For the record, Shakespeare’s backstage politics are reflected in “Macbeth.” When James I of Scotland succeeded to the English throne in 1603 and became patron of Shakespeare’s theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were renamed the King’s Men.
Banquo was King James’ direct ancestor through the Stuart line; in “Macbeth,” Banquo is plainly the good man.