Joel Coen Is New King of Scotland With His Beautiful ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth Carter Burwell Music Preview
Courtesy of Alison Rosa/A24

Never underestimate Joel Coen.

In a year when nine of the top-grossing films are part of a franchise, his new film is Shakespeare. Entirely filmed on soundstages, with abstract, Expressionistic sets. It’s in black and white. The stars are over 60.

It’s not exactly a safe bet, but Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is one of the year’s best, and one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare on film.

When a play has been performed onstage for 400 years and filmed multiple times by directors including Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, it’s hard to bring anything new to the table. But Coen makes the material feel fresh and urgent, and it’s filled with potential Oscar contenders, including Coen, Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and the team of artisans.

“Macbeth” opened in theaters Christmas Day and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.

A theatrical superstition says people cannot mention the title backstage, but should refer to it as “the Scottish play.” The explanation that’s generally accepted is that it has a history of bad luck; one version says the actor playing Lady Macbeth died on the night of the play’s debut so Shakespeare himself had to step in, and that was followed by centuries of trouble-plagued productions.

That’s possible, but another theory is credible: Ever since Shakespeare wrote it early in the 1600s, “Macbeth” has been a crowdpleaser. And when theatrical managers would tour their plays around the country, if their shows weren’t selling well, they would add “Macbeth,” which guaranteed good box office. So whenever actors heard “Macbeth,” it meant their company was likely having financial troubles.

“Macbeth” is great material. Like recent hits such as “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” it is filled with plots and counterplots, sometimes with guilt, sometimes in cold blood. Plus it has insight into human nature, beautiful poetic language, violence and witches. What’s not to like?

Filmmakers recognized the surefire material from the early days, including an 1898 short and a nine-minute version in 1908. In a 1971 review of Polanski’s adaptation, Variety said it was the 16th known film version. In 2022, IMDb listed more than 100 productions, including Ian McKellen & Judi Dench (1979); and Patrick Stewart in the title role, directed by Rupert Goold (2010).

There are also international adaptations, such as Japan’s 1957 “Throne of Blood.” In its review, Variety praised Toshiro Mifune for his “ranting, raving, rooting, tooting performance” and admired Kurosawa’s “masterful direction.” The review bemoaned that Shakespeare’s language was lost in translation, but enthused over the “achievement of mood and photographic invention,” wishing it had been in color instead of B&W — “but the element of surprise vanishes when one beholds what has been accomplished by these artisans in two basic shades.”

Coen’s version retains the language and matches the achievements of Kurosawa’s artisans.

Produced by Coen, McDormand and Robert Graf, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” boasts an honor roll of artisans: DP Bruno Delbonnel, production designer Stefan Dechant, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Carter Burwell, sound designer Craig Berkey and editor Lucian Johnston (working with “Reginald Jaynes,” Coen’s nom de editing).

And, for the record, “Macbeth” reflects Shakespeare’s backstage politics. James I of Scotland ascended to the English throne in 1603 and became the patron of Shakespeare’s theater company, transforming them from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men into the King’s Men.

King James considered Banquo as his direct ancestor, with the line of Stuart kings; in “Macbeth,” Banquo is clearly the good guy.

Let this serve as a reminder for anyone who objects to modern showbiz inserting politics into their work. Twas ever thus.