While the works of William Shakespeare are adapted nonchalantly and frequently, few can grip the core of his work and shake it into some formidable or intense creation. Macbeth is not just a constant recurrence, but an obvious choice for adaptation. Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender and now Denzel Washington have taken on the role in the past decade. To pick a favourite is difficult, for The Tragedy of Macbeth is yet another interpretation of historic work. Washington has admitted he only has so much time left to work with the greatest, and this pairing with director Joel Coen is a monumental one, a savage and biting turn for Washington who is usually presented as the hero or troubled lead.
Taking on a role as grand and specific as Macbeth gives him a surprising range for cunning, sinister moments. They are effectively taken in by the actor, no surprises there, but it is Coen’s direction that surprises most. When so many of his features before this have been thrillers or dramas littered with lighter moments to pad out the dark subject matter, it is fascinating to see a straight-shooting feature from the man that found the lighter side of murders in Fargo or the tongue-in-cheek desires of prisoners on the run in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Although The Tragedy of Macbeth does feature lighter moments to it, they are solely in the first act of the film, when characters are yet to be established and the thespian nature of Shakespeare adaptations.
The imitable qualities of the sound stage were shunned, but Coen uses the outdoors sparingly. A backdrop provides a blurry quality, letting audiences fixate on the wordplay these actors deliver. It gives Coen the range to work with shadow, fog and lighting far more than the intricacies of nature and the preventable challenges it brings. Just look at Barry Lyndon. Its beauty can be traded out for the heartbreak and frustrations of a director waiting for the right pairing of clouds. Coen ditches those problems with an intimate adaptation of Macbeth, presenting an authorial simplicity to the undefined shapes and buildings that make up the backdrop. They cast shadows over the scene, providing strong shading and an incredible sense of place for these characters. Despite the simplicity of it, Coen crafts a real beauty for these characters to find themselves tortured by.
Allusions to The Seventh Seal with cloaked madmen in foggy fields, strong characteristics displayed by an ensemble cast and a solo project for Joel Coen that gets him closer to genuine dramatics than the fast and loose delights of Coen Brothers classics. The Tragedy of Macbeth is loaded with subtext and misery, the desires of Shakespeare’s original piece are both welcomed and shunned in an equal manner. For every act of faithful adaptation, there is an equal reaction that Coen provides something new with. He layers the new stylings of an old piece of theatre well, a collation of ideas brought from the play and the stage it first appeared on, all constructed with a simplicity that dedicates itself to the focus on performance rather than the indulgence of other adaptations.