Despite lacking narrative intentionality, The Tragedy of Macbeth, which made its world premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival, has a number of stellar performances.
Standing in the middle of a desolate landscape, we meet Macbeth (Denzel Washington), a weary soldier in the twilight of his life. He and his trusted friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel) have just returned home from war. Soon, Macbeth encounters the three weird sisters (all played by the brilliant Kathryn Hunter) who foretell his rise to power. What follows is a story of murder, madness, and grief. There have been many film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, starring powerful actors like Orson Welles, Toshiro Mifune and, more recently, Michael Fassbender. But there’s something notably different about Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. This time, Macbeth is an old man taking one last swing at glory. He’s also a Black man — the first to play the role in a major Hollywood film.
But what does this casting mean? Every new adaptation of an old story must be able, within the narrative, to answer the question of its existence. Why now? Is it a response to the present moment, or does it stand separate from that as a pure dramatic exercise with no higher purpose? Films like the 1995 Othello starring Laurence Fishburne and 2001’s O starring Mekhi Phifer, are necessary cultural responses to a play notorious for being performed in Blackface. The former gives a great actor the space to truly shine in a lead, while the latter acknowledges the present, real-life concerns of the modern Black man. With this in mind, what does it mean to have a Black Macbeth in 2021? An easy answer would be to provide space for a truly great actor to regain the dramatic spotlight with a large, theatrical project. Washington hasn’t been in a Shakespeare film since 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. But his acting style has always been theatrical, and he’s an obvious choice for any role that requires the ability to monologue while still keeping the audience engaged.
Washington is definitely up to the task, making a meal out of every scene. And yet, his motivations in the film feel murky. Due to his age and visible exhaustion, it seems like Washington’s Macbeth would rather retire than vie for the Scottish throne. When his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) urges him to seize the throne, it comes off more of a burden than a shining opportunity. Having the couple be older is an inspired choice, transforming the characters from youthful schemers to weary elders making their final grasps at greatness. But the racial dynamic between the two adds another layer to it. Is this Macbeth a Black man who is trying to prove to his white wife — and himself — that he can rise to the stature of a white monarch? It seems that Coen — who, with the exception of The Ladykillers, tends to stay away from the topic of race — is unaware of these narrative possibilities. In recent years, there has been much conversation over the Coen brothers (and other white directors) not casting actors of color. It’s worth asking if this film — which also stars Cory Hawkins as a Macduff — was cast partially in response to that. And if this is the case, why not lean into it?
The Tragedy of Macbeth is the solo effort of Coen, a subtle stylistic departure from his previous work. Most known for his creative collaboration with his younger brother Ethan, Coen made the controversial choice to helm this film without him. The result is a significant, structural, and tonal departure from his previous work. Though the Coen brothers have made dramatic films before — including Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the Academy-Award winning No Country for Old Men — there is something noticeably more classical about the drama in this film. It appears to be a direct homage to Orson Welles’ 1948 film adaptation. The use of black and white, dark shadows, and a gothic atmosphere strongly mirrors the classic film. It stands in sharp contrast to the most recent adaptation from director Justin Kurzel, who reimagines the story as a colorful, bloody, brooding war epic. Coen’s film feels more like a play, with the setting only serving as a background to frame the actors. The film simply refuses to transport the viewer, as every actor performs as if they’re being watched by an audience seated just offscreen.
But even though the Tragedy of Macbeth mimics a more classical Hollywood style, it still feels oddly contemporary. The digital black and white doesn’t have the richness of Welles’ version. Watching them back-to-back reveals the precision of Coen’s film — from the composition of shots to the staging of scenes. Though beautiful, it all feels too clean. Actors walk into frame to deliver their lines, finish, and then walk out. Sometimes it feels like we’re watching the actors audition for their roles rather than embody them. This is most obvious in the scenes between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, whose marriage feels noticeably artificial. There’s an obvious lack of chemistry between the two actors, as well as an odd unwillingness to allow them to be tender with each other on screen. In the Welles version, and even the more recent Kurzel interpretation, the chemistry between the central couple is key to the film. Here, one almost wishes the awkwardness between the two was intentional for the story. Ultimately, it underlines this film’s main problem: it lacks narrative intentionality. And what we are left with are a collection of towering performances, deeply devoted to the revered text with little interest in the audience watching.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.