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Shakespeare & Beyond

The power of restriction: Joel Coen's 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth"

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth, now streaming on Apple TV+

A movie that honors a play’s theatricality: That’s what director Joel Coen said he wanted for The Tragedy of Macbeth, his new adaptation of the Scottish play. The result is a brilliant interpretation that’s my favorite kind of Shakespeare: it combines the artifice of theater with the techniques of film, especially the use of the close-up, where the thinking behind the verse gets as much attention as the verse itself.

There’s a moment early on, for example, when Denzel Washington’s title character opens his mouth to speak — and then decides not to. That tiny beat of uncertainty signals that one of our most compelling film actors — who commands the screen with such theatrical bravado in roles like Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences and the swaggering Alonzo in Training Day — will be holding his considerable power in check to portray Shakespeare’s reluctant yet ambitious tragic hero. Shakespeare’s plays are nothing if not studies of contrasts: comedy and tragedy, high-born and low, poetry and prose, and, in this play especially, fair and foul. The contrast of casting Washington, an actor of great charm and energetic presence — and then reining him in — creates a powerful tension between actor and role.

Washington’s not alone. While his decision to take that breath and not speak feels like the actor’s choice, it fits with the overall quiet intensity most of the cast bring to their lines, and that feels like director Coen’s choice. Rather than encouraging his actors to deliver their speeches grandly (Washington has said the on-set mandate was “no ‘stick-up-the-butt’ acting”), Coen saves his biggest theatrical flourishes for gorgeously shot expressionistic sets and sudden explosions of violence and supernatural surprise.


This was a joy to read. Thank you.

Amy McLaughlin — January 19, 2022