The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

March 19, 2022

I’ve been making my way through the 2021 Oscar nominees in preparation for the Oscars next week, and yesterday I watched Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021).

It’s apparently the first film one of the Coen brothers have done without the other, though it features the usual Frances McDormand lead and Carter Burwell score. I almost didn’t watch it because it hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture or Best Director, and normally I am not too interested in adaptations of works which I’ve read (perhaps a topic for another post). But, Shakespeare is its own unique category of adaptations because his works are so prolifically adapted and they are so seeped into the English-speaking cultural context in a way that’s arguably comparable to the Bible.

I’m glad I did end up watching it because visually, I was blown away by this film.

Before I get into the visuals, I will say that the primary acting performances fell flat for me. Macbeth is one of the few Shakespeare plays that I’ve actually read and remember vividly liking, so I expected a tortured descent into tyrannical madness from Macbeth’s character, and an intensely powerful Lady Macbeth who becomes wracked with unbearable, horrified guilt. The film’s dialogue stuck more-or-less to the original text — which means, of course, iambic pentameter in 17th century English — which I think was the right artistic choice given that the set itself was so theater-like, yet which also ultimately worked against the effectiveness of the film. There was a strained quality, especially in Denzel Washington’s acting, that pulled the viewer out of the story and was a constant reminder that one needs to really pay attention to the words to follow what is going on because picking up on inflection and affect alone wasn’t enough. (Sadly, a common theme this award season seems to be established actors being nominated for lazy/subpar performances.)

Some of the other characters, especially the three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) and Ross (a minor character in the play who was promoted to a more major role in this adaptation, played by Alex Hassell), were excellent!

Snip from The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - The three witches giving their initial prophecy

I was impressed by the cinematography, set design, and score from the very beginning. The film is shot in black and white, and done completely in artificial sound stages. Each shot was beautifully composed and well-lit: I was reminded of something between the lovely sparseness of early abstract photography and the strange frightfulness of German expressionism.

Paul Strand, “Wall Street” (1915)
Paul Strand, “Porch Shadows” (1916)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - German silent horror film
Something that came up when I googled “German expressionist theater”

The choice of doing it in black and white was really well-executed. Black and white film is such an amazing medium to achieve the heights of composition and to get truly stunning chiaroscuro (bold light/dark contrast) lighting to evoke psychological drama.

A few particularly dark and almost gothic shots—

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

—are reminiscent of more early photography:

Anne Brigman, “Soul of Blasted Pine” (1906)
Edward Steichen, “Nocturne” (1913)

Architectural space in the film becomes the arena for the tragedy to play out. Light interacts with space to create a sense of foreboding:

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Macbeth after planning his first murder
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Macbeth waits in the shadows for Macduff to arrive
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Lady Macbeth and Macbeth

There is also mid-century surrealist and and film-noir influence, especially with the Roman architectural motifs:

Giorgio de Chirico, “Piazza d’Italia” (1955)
Snip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951)

And these are too beautiful to be left out:

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) in my opinion is well-deserving of its Best Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) and Best Production Design (Stefan Dechant, Nancy Haigh) Academy Award nominations! It wasn’t a perfect movie, but it was a delight for my eyes.