There’s a new “Macbeth” out there in the world, and if you love a faithful adaptation of a Shakespearen play, definitely check this one out. If you find uncut adaptations of the Bard a little dense, however, this won’t change your mind. Though visually inventive and populated with a variety of enthusiastic actors, 2021’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is mostly preaching to the choir.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the preaching is of this caliber. The latest version of Macbeth was adapted and directed by Joel Coen (half of the famous Coen Brothers, in his solo feature debut), and it stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, two of our finest living actors, in the lead roles of the Scottish usurper king and his conniving wife.

For those who’ve never read the play or perhaps have forgotten their high school English classes, a recap: After receiving a mystical prophecy from a trio of creepy witches (all played here by the excellent Kathryn Turner), Scottish lord Macbeth decides to take all actions necessary to become king, spurred on by his wife, Lady Macbeth. “All actions necessary” quickly turns to “murdering the current king,” which then quickly turns to “murdering a bunch of other people,” which quickly leads the pair down a road of paranoia and despair.

While I appreciate the Shakespearen plays I’ve read (and once, in college, performed in), I’ll confess to not dipping into the playwright’s work very often since I graduated. On the other hand, I have dipped into the work of the Coens since then, so I was excited to see these two brands of storytelling blended together. On the surface, it’s a sensible match; much of the Coens’ best work deals in the slow burn of bad decisions, as characters are consumed by their bone-headed mistakes. The Macbeths aren’t exactly great at covering their tracks.

In practice, however, Coen seems much more adapted by the text than the text seems by him. The events and dialogue of the play are carried over very, very faithfully, and everyone involved is very committed to “doing Shakespeare,” no funny stuff. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with this, and I often enjoyed the presentation, but it’s very, very dense, and the speed at which the dialogue is delivered will likely leave many viewers with only the gist of what the actors are saying or simply struggling to catch up.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

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There is an artifice to the proceedings that’s clearly intentional and stagey, as if to emphasize the medium from which the source material flows. Shot all on soundstages, in black and white (in academy ratio) and frequently lacking any discernible backdrop, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” looks like nothing so much as a classic biblical epic, or, more fittingly, an inventively shot stage production. The set design, by Stefan Dechant, was my favorite part of the film, all fog-obscured horizons and severe, angular castle interiors. I always had something alien and striking to look at as the actors delivered their monologues.

Alas, too often was I aware that the deliveries were just that. Whether by their defeat at the hands of the dialogue or (more likely) the conscious choice to match the production’s stagey artifice, most of the actors recite their parts with the import of a performer speaking the Bard’s words, presenting them to the audience on a platter rather than treating them as actual things an actual character would say. Of the main cast, I was most impressed by Corey Hawkins as Macbeth’s rival Macduff, who imbued his part with a naturalism the other (very gifted) actors in the cast did not bring.

Again, I’m willing to accept this as intentional. You probably know a lot of lines from Macbeth, whether you know they’re from Macbeth or not. “Double, double, toil and trouble.” “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s a rich, writerly text, and I imagine there’s a strong temptation to make sure it’s honored with the appropriate gravitas. Everyone involved comports themselves well in this regard, but I would have liked to see a little more of a personal spin.

Ryan Howard writes about pop culture for the Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at outofcontreks@gmail.com.

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