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Joel Coen takes on 'Macbeth' without his brother Ethan

Joel Coen (center) on the set of his adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Joel Coen (center) on the set of his adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Macbeth" (2021).

Denzel Washington stars in stunningly cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Cinema Junkie Recommends Joel Coen's stunning new 'Macbeth

Something wicked is coming for Christmas. Something wickedly good from Joel Coen. Coen, without his usual collaborator and brother Ethan, turns to Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Macbeth" for his first solo feature directing project.

Stylistically Coen’s film is full of contradictions. It’s breathtakingly cinematic with wonderful use of light, shadow, and fog. Yet much of the action is shot on sets that feel distinctly theatrical in terms of being confined interior spaces. But the unusual combination proves effective as it turns the story into an intimate and claustrophobic marital drama about love and ambition.

Heightening the mood is that the film is shot in starkly beautiful black and white and in a more narrowly confining and boxier 1:33 aspect ratio. Taking his cue from Shakespeare's visually rich text, Coen fills the soundtrack with nature (especially crows), strange sounds, and a pounding sense of a destiny that cannot be avoided. His imagining of the witches is also brilliant with Kathryn Hunter embodying all three in a creepy, not quite human way.


Another of the film's contradictions involves how Coen directs his cast, especially Denzel Washington. He often seems to ask Washington to deliver lines, especially in his many soliloquies, in an almost flat style. Yet the visuals are so intoxicatingly vivid that you succumb completely to his interpretation.

Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) plot murder in Joel Coen's adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
Alison Cohen Rosa / Apple
Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) plot murder in Joel Coen's adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Macbeth" (2021).

In some ways, it feels like Coen is stripping everything down to its most minimal level. The sets are bold striking lines but almost devoid of props or set dressing. The images, even when they are the most evocative, still feel crisp and clean as if there are no extraneous elements. And the same goes for the dialogue; no need to add flowery layers of emotion to Shakespeare's text when the words — plain and simple — convey all the necessary meaning.

On a certain level, Coen's "Macbeth" adds little insight into the problematic character. We don't really understand why the heroic Macbeth is so easily turned to murder by his ambitious wife. In this version, we just accept that Macbeth is driven by some sort of destiny to his tragic end. Although I am in love with Coen's "Macbeth" for finding such a rapturous way to bring Shakespeare to life on screen, Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation with a young Jon Finch (making the character young adds to the tragedy) is my favorite interpretation of the play. Polanski's film gets to the soul of the character; Coen gives us a Shakespearean supernatural tale.

"Macbeth" has always been my favorite Shakespeare play. It is a lean, swiftly moving work that's filled with startling imagery. Coen fully taps into those elements, and although there are line reads that lack the emotional depth I want, Coen still makes me fall in love with his film. Arriving on Christmas Day "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is a gift that will bring joy to anyone who loves the Bard or seductively stylish cinema.

"The Tragedy of Macbeth" opens in theaters on Christmas day and starts streaming on Apple on Jan. 14.


And if you want some additional viewing tips for this holiday weekend, check out Cinema Junkie Recommends.

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