Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Katherine Hunter, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Stephen Root, and Sean Patrick Thomas.
Directed By: Joel Coen
Where I Watched It: Apple TV Plus
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: Unfortunately, this film is not Denzel Washington haunting any daring stage actor who has the courage to say MacBeth instead of “The Scottish Play”. Instead, this is just Shakespeare’s text of Macbeth (Washington) a Scottish lord who becomes convinced that he can make a power grab after consulting with witches (Hunter), and with the full support of his wife (McDormand).
What Works: It’s Shakespeare’s text, so it’s pretty critic proof. Who am I to dare to suggest that William Shakespeare’s text that has long stood the test of time is somehow inadequate/ That kind of makes this a layup for Joel Coen.
There is considerably more hype for our recognizable main leads than the rich supporting ensemble that actually does some much better interpretation of the Bard. Katherine Hunter, in particular, is probably the one who should be noted for stealing the show. She’s effectively menacing and prophetic, allowing Shakespeare’s text to fly like venom. My single favorite moment came from the utterance of the famous Double Double Toil and Trouble, a line said by many before, yet somehow made entirely her own by Hunter.
Stephen Root, an actor I never actually expected to see in a Shakespeare production, also does some truly great, yet very minimal work. Sadly, the greatest crime Hunter and root have committed is not being Denzel Washington or Frances McDormand.
And Joel Coen, who apparently had a bucket list to do some Shakespeare without his brother, does add some interesting effects into the film to try and make this a cinematic effort. Really though, this film, as presented, succeeds through using a hundreds of years old text and casting a largely appropriate, and entirely talented cast.
What Doesn’t Work: And yet, it is still just another adaptation of MacBeth. Which in some regards is enough. Like I said, it’s a layup. It’s hard to mess this up. You have to find a terrible director and a terrible cast in order to do so, and that didn’t happen here. Yet, I am still underwhelmed and here’s why.
Joel Coen, along with his brother Ethan (who is notably absent from this project) has quite an illustrious career of films that are explicitly written and directed by The Coen Brothers. They are auteurs that have an expected style, not just visually, but it lies often in their screenplays, for which they have been nominated and won many awards. Here, all Joel is expected to do is take Shakespeare’s text and transpose it into a cinematic effort, and while it is done with competence, it just doesn’t feel like a Joel Coen project, and definitely falls short of any expectation you may have from being a long time fan of the Brothers Coen.
Part of me, while fully admitting that Shakespeare and his original text is brilliant, would have still liked to see what the voices of The Coen Brothers, or even Joel alone would have brought to a true adaptation of this work. If I’m going to walk into Quentin Tarantino’s Hamlet or Kevin Smith’s Twelfth Night, I am going to walk in with a certain expectation based on what these directors have worked so hard to establish as their signature style. I don’t want to see Tarantino just direct a straight adaptation of Hamlet. He’s a good director, but for his projects, they work so well because of the perfect marriage of his text and his vision. If you heard Wes Anderson was directing King Lear, and it was just a straight played version of King Lear, wouldn’t you feel somewhat perplexed, if not let down by the decision to not explore a different approach?
And to highlight that this s should be recognized as a Coen film, here’s Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth. She’s a tremendous actress, which is why she has three Oscars, but this has to be one of my least favorite things she’s done. The same can be said of Washington, who feels at times like he is performing from the early part of his career. There’s a tone in his line delivery that reminded me so much of his earlier work, and less of the more complicated characters he has tackled in films like Flight and Fences.
In fact, Fences is largely why I would disagree with all acting nominations for Washington here, because his understanding of august Wilson’s text didn’t just feel like he was doing it to prove a point, or check something off a list, he took to Fences like August Wilson’s text was his life blood. Like if he didn’t get to say those words, and present them to you, he could never be a completed actor. Here, it feels more like Washington is just checking Shakespeare off his list, in a form that is widely accessible to his audience, so everyone has the opportunity to see him tread the boards of Shakespeare.
Yet, for both, it never quite settles in to the same pocket that a lot of the supporting cast, many who are largely unknown, and in roles with limited dialogue, all seem to relish and fully embody everything that it is to interpret this text. Washington and McDormand are both tremendous actors, who for a lack of a better phrase, are resting on their laurels. And that is not a reason to award someone, simply because we are so used to being able to bask in their constant brilliance. For both leads, these are forgettable roles, and when the book is closed on their careers, their performances here will merely be a footnote in what are extraordinary careers.
It’s not that they are bad, it’s that they aren’t great. Two of the best living actors feel like instead of hitting a home run, or stacking the bases and even getting that grand slam, all they did was get hit by the pitch, and a walk to first base. Sure, they are on the base. But, nobody remembers the times Babe Ruth just made it to first base.
The Blind Perspective: Don’t expect a whole hell of a lot from this audio description. It does very little to establish the visual styles on screen, and has a hard time interjecting in a dialogue heavy film. The AD is definitely lacking, but it is there. Aside from me wanting more description about the set and scenes, I don’t know how they would interject into long sequences of back and forth dialogue. There really isn’t a lot more they could have done there.
Final Thoughts: It works because the original text is teflon. Not because Joel Coen brought his own flavor, or because Washington and McDormand give the performances of their life. this is just a serviceable adaptation, with a strong ensemble, where the minor characters and lesser known actors end up stealing the show. It’s impossible to grade Shakespeare too low, especially when it technically is a fine adaptation. For educators, this could work as a version to show to your students to give them more flavor and get them interested in something that perhaps they otherwise would not be interested in if it were not for the presence of Denzel. But as a cinematic effort, this is far from being a tour de force, or something that will leave a mark for years to come.
Final Grade: B-