Released: 14th January
Seen: 19th February
If one were to take a wild guess at who was the most frequently performed and adapted writer in history, chances are good your first guess would be Shakespeare and you would more than likely be right. His work is incredibly malleable and easy to adapt into anything you want. His works can be turned into cartoons about a pride of lions (Lion King = Hamlet), it can be a fun 90s romcom (10 Things I Hate About You = Taming Of The Shrew) or it can be a classic Hollywood musical (West Side Story = Romeo & Juliet).
That’s one way of adapting Shakespeare’s work, the other is just to take the text as it was originally written and just do a straightforward reading of the legendary text. The question is how you translate this centuries-old text into a modern-day film… The Tragedy of Macbeth does a pretty serviceable job of being a high-end performance of probably Shakespeare’s most well-known work.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a story you know already, about a lord named Macbeth (Denzel Washington) who hears a prophecy that he will become king from a trio of witches and so, with the help from his wicked wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), rises up to the role of King through a path of murder and treachery that eventually leads to his undoing.
It’s a classic story for a reason, it’s full of drama and intrigue, horrific murders and witchcraft. Hell, there’s a reason why every single theatre at some point feels compelled to put on a production of a play that people in the theatre community consider to be cursed to the point where they call it “The Scottish Play”. Sure enough, The Tragedy of Macbeth just does it dead straight from start to finish.
Doing Shakespeare in a film almost exactly as written can work well, Kenneth Branagh practically made his directorial career out of doing it. Of course, Branagh went all out for his adaptations, producing 4-hour epics and making over the top visual spectacles. The Tragedy of Macbeth feels a little bit more like the 2012 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, in that I’m fairly sure everyone in the cast is on Joel Coen’s speed dial and it was shot quickly in black and white in a very limited staging that relies mostly on the talented actors and imaginative use of visuals to elevate the thousand-times-adapted material.
Sure enough, it somehow works because it turns out when you let Denzel Washington play Macbeth you get a fantastic performance that runs the gamut from a scared man learning of his fate to a mad king drunk on power. There’s a reason this performance has an Oscar nomination and it’s because, shocker of all shocks, one of the greatest actors of all time can make Shakespeare sound like it was written specifically with him in mind. Please, hold your jaw in place, you can drop it in a bit when I state the next totally shocking thing.
Also turns out that Frances McDormand, who I’m fairly certain was on everyone’s shortlist of “Legendary Actresses who should play Lady Macbeth”, is really fucking good at being Lady Macbeth. No matter how many times you have heard someone yell “Out damn spot!”, you haven’t heard McDormand do it and she makes it exactly as enthralling as one might expect. Honestly, the actual shock is that she somehow isn’t also Oscar Nominated, I guess they figured she has 3 already so they could ignore her this time which I’m stunned by because it’s a performance that’s impossible to ignore.
What’s also impossible to ignore is just how goddamn beautiful The Tragedy of Macbeth looks. They made a bold decision to use classic old-style film visuals, the aspect ratio and black and white but mixing it with some modern trickery to create this piece that looks timeless and luscious to behold. Things like the reveal of the witches or a transition between locations done by smoke sliding over the screen or even that “Out damn spot” scene are all so visually striking with flawless framing, creative angles and making the most out of what can be done with this medium to elevate this far beyond what one might see if this same cast were on stage.
As an adaptation of Macbeth it’s really hard to deny that The Tragedy of Macbeth is a fantastic performance of this classic text, the changes are minimal (mostly just rearranging some dialogue and cutting a few superfluous lines that aren’t really needed) but it might be one of the best readings of this piece that has been put to film. The Tragedy of Macbeth is basically the exact thing I would’ve wanted to see if someone told me this cast was going to do Macbeth, if the play itself doesn’t interest you then this is not any different or elevated that much but just as a straight-up performance of Macbeth, you won’t find much better than this one.