As an English Literature teacher who has taught Shakespeare’s Macbeth for seven years, my perspective on adaptations will differ to most. While I understand that Joel Coen’s turn is a striking piece of cinema full of good actors saying pretty words, and certainly is cinematic (on a visual level), it is a lukewarm adaptation that is often at odds with the strength of the source material. Coen’s Macbeth feels like what people think Shakespeare is: an arch, arty thing to make you ‘hmm’ with appreciation (art to stroke your chin to). Macbeth isn’t this. Macbeth is a bloody, passionate play that should feel like a descent into hell. It is a story where the stakes are the size of the nation, where a country’s fate rests at the whims of the course of the tragedy.
Coen’s Macbeth is an isolated, moody affair. It is a work that highlights interiority, an element of the play but not its primary mode. Everything is stripped back and contemplative, which places the focus on the Bard’s words (which are abridged but left intact). This fronts the beautiful imagery of the language but the cinematic imagery doesn’t lift things as it could. The design lives on the edge of expressionism and realism, and would be better if it ventured fully into either. The film’s very best moments are the very few when it because more surreal (in the wider edit and direction, not just in an atypical piece of set design), where it takes advantage of its arthouse stylings. The murder of Duncan, for example, is very good: the famous footsteps of the departing Macbeth are mimicked by the dripping blood of the dead king, and the scene jumps between the two. It is a way of expressing one of the key symbols in the play in a way that theatre couldn’t do; it is uniquely cinematic. Elsewhere, the visual language belongs to the background, setting a tone and focusing on aesthetic appeal. But, the effect of this is a cold, moody film, one distant from the passions that Macbeth should inspire, and one that is certainly less dramatically satisfying.
The constriction, once again, does push the more intimate aspects of the play. This version is defined by its soliloquys and the approach certainly highlights these. It is an actor’s showpiece and the actors are all notable enough to showpiece. Denzel Washington, as Macbeth, is definitively the star. The words flow beautifully from his mouth and he seems to imbue them with more gravitas and meaning than ever before (the highest praise). The issue, for me, though, is that the rest of the film doesn’t match up to this bargain. Everybody else reads their Shakespeare rather stiltedly, perhaps betraying a lack of confidence with exactly what the lines mean. It is a lot of directly speaking to the camera and characters cordoned off. It is a very literal adaptation of the text, but not an adaptation of the play. The play happens, to such a great extent, between the speeches: it lives in the interactions between the characters. The different approaches to the lines (more natural performances and some just more confident performances) means our players juxtapose; there is little to no chemistry and it is a work of separation when it doesn’t need to be. It is a film built around prioritising performances but then the performances aren’t truly allowed to shine.
And, while the film is admittedly beautiful, it is not the beauty of Macbeth. The look of the film evokes Theodore Dreyer, Bergman in Seventh Seal mode and works of that ilk. It would be easy to link it to the superlative Throne of Blood (another Macbeth adaptation, and easily the finest), but that is a very surface level connection. This has the black and white of that film, but the black and white is handled so differently here. It’s a Chiaroscuro approach that looks stunning, the interplay of black and white matching some of the surface level themes of the play. But, Macbeth is a play about the fall of a kingdom. It is a narrative about a descent into a hell that becomes almost literal. Day is supposed to turn into eternal night; horses flee and eat each other; mousing owls tear hawks from the sky. This sense of chaos is overridden by a strict formality. We should have chaos: sound and fury. We instead have arty contemplation, some edgy angles and dark shadows being the extent of the anarchic. It is a play that should invoke passion; it is a play with genuine jokes in it. These parts don’t translate. The verbal imagery may remain, evoking all of this, but it’s easy to forget that the imagery is so rich as a replacement for the visual. With cinema, the constraint is gone, so why not speak more through the camera, and visual design?
Key scenes are also bungled. The Porter scene lacks its ribald charms; the Banquo’s ghost scene is a real departure from the source and a real misstep. Additionally, the arcs of the play are somewhat mishandled. Macbeth’s descent into madness loses key steps, and with no view of the wider world, his actual tyranny becomes absent. Frances McDormand sadly underwhelms as Lady Macbeth. At no point does she feel Machiavellian; at no point does she inspire fear. Her final speech is also a dud, frustratingly re-situated in a bizarre location (as is true of Macduff’s rallying of the English army, which ends up as a chat in a forest). Another weird choice is the fronting of Ross, a minor character in the source text that has new lines and takes on multiple (and often pivotal) roles. This may be the tragedy of Macbeth, but it’s the rise of Ross. It’s Joel Coen’s Ross fan-fiction that he’s apparently always wanted to write, complete with a crossover scene where he stares at Lady Macbeth while she is on some stairs, and with a bonus epilogue scene because Shakespeare’s ending wasn’t good enough.
Now, I’m by no means a purist. Be different. Be daring. This adaptation just isn’t that. It is so strict and artsy, so tied to the theatrical and the thespian; but, in a way that Macbeth actually isn’t. The catharsis of the play is sapped by art-house pretentions and, though its such a handsome film, and in many ways remarkable, it is not a good adaptation. Which, again, would be fine if it didn’t feel so determined to be a close adaptation. It doesn’t take daring flourishes, it is theatrical rather than cinematic and is not the Macbeth I’m looking for. If you haven’t studied and taught this play for seven years, I’m sure Coen’s Macbeth is a stunner. For those in my very unique position, you may be left thinking Joel has chosen the wrong source material for his artsy solo-project.