The Tragedy of Macbeth: A triumph in film

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By Alexis Costas, Broadcast Editor

An issue faced by all film adaptations of stage productions is giving audiences a reason to watch it over a professionally-taped live performance. Some movies, such as Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables,” jam as many celebrities as possible into roles that may or may not suit them – often with mediocre results. Others, such as David Michôd’s “The King,” mess with their source material to the point where the final product is nearly unwatchable. It’s more difficult than most people would expect to make a movie out of a play or musical that feels more unique or engaging than a live performance would be, and in my opinion no filmmaker has ever succeeded in doing so: that is, until now.

In “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” director Joel Coen delivers a new and refreshing rendition of Shakespeare’s haunting tale. When I heard that the film was staying true to the script of the original “Macbeth,” my expectations were honestly set pretty low. Many, many directors have attempted to conquer the task of bringing Shakespeare’s work to the silver screen over the years, with little success. Old English and iambic pentameter usually feel out of place in a glitzy Hollywood production, and are understandably difficult to make sense of to most audiences – but modernizing the text defeats the point of making a Shakespeare movie at all. I was prepared to be bored and/or confused throughout most of Coen’s film. Boy, was I wrong.

Coen delivers a visual and audio masterpiece with his rendition of the story of Macbeth, a Scottish general destined to become king who is cursed by his own ambition. Filmed completely in black and white, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” commands watchers’ attention with its unforgettable imagery and stellar cast. Academy Award winners Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand lead the film as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, delivering masterful portrayals of the two twisted characters. As someone who struggles to understand Shakespeare’s prose, I had no trouble following the plot thanks to their emotional, seamless performances. The supporting cast is exceptional as well, and it is worth noting that Kathryn Hunter’s performance as the Three Witches is probably one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen (in the best way possible). 

However, plenty of movie adaptations have great casting, as mentioned previously. What sets “The Tragedy” apart? 

The short answer is that Coen’s film doesn’t truly feel like a movie or a play – it feels like a perfect blend of both mediums. A very prominent feature of this movie is its minimal set design: even in settings like Macbeth’s castle, shots are framed widely and few props are present. Intense visual effects are rarely used, but are edited beautifully in the few moments that they are. Combined with tastefully disorienting camera angles, sharp sound design and Carter Burwell’s chilling score,  I felt like I was watching a live production on steroids. The actors, filming and post-production staff work in perfect harmony with one another, creating a finished product that fuses the magic of film with the raw beauty and emotion of live theater in a way no other project has before.

Despite all this, I would be lying if I said this movie would be a perfect match for everyone. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is dark both in its visuals and overall atmosphere, to a more severe degree than other adaptations I have seen of the original. Washington and McDormand portray their characters’ descents into insanity so well that some scenes are almost too unnerving to watch. That being said, I really, really enjoyed this film, and if you’re a fan of Shakespeare or macabre films, you probably will too.

Let’s face it: not that many kids are into Shakespeare. I had to constantly stop myself from falling asleep during my middle school English units covering “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”- and yet, I found myself glued to the screen while watching this movie. Coen and his team do an amazing job of making Shakespeare scary, and if you have the chance to see it when it releases this December, I absolutely would recommend it. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a delightfully dreary retelling of a classic story, and will surely stick with you long after the credits roll.


Alexis Costas can be reached at [email protected]