Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is jaw-dropping in IMAX

This past weekend, Apple Original Films and A24 hosted a worldwide IMAX screening of The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, in advance of its public theatrical release this Christmas and its subsequent release to streaming in January. Since attending this screening in Chicago, I wanted to share some thoughts on the film.

The Production

Macbeth is one of the plays high school students often familiarize themselves with in English class, me included. Going into the screening, I had some familiarity with the source material, though I refrained from refreshing my memory. In terms of conveying the story, Tragedy of Macbeth does very well. Aside from a few minor cuts to the First Folio, “for concision” according to production notes, it stays true to what was published in 1623. From the brief Q&A excerpt following the screening, this decision was intentional. Also intentional was the incorporation of asides into the scenes themselves, a simple way of preventing fourth wall breaks from interrupting the flow of the story.

It’s this simple approach Coen takes that contributes to the prevailing sense of aesthetic minimalism throughout the film: not one that distracted from what was going on, but one that allowed for more focus on the actors and the text itself. What may be a surprise to viewers is that Tragedy is black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio. For some, that may evoke a sense of black and white television, but the film is nonetheless approached in a contemporary way.

Special effects are infrequent enough to not be the focal point of the film, yet they are intricate and mesmerize with their careful intention. Fights are brief, but they shock and surprise all the same, especially the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (played by Corey Hawkins). The set design is clean and geometric, though characters within the spaces accentuate the design in their actions. Transitions are easy to follow, but visual motifs of birds, smoke, and night serve as the vehicles to arrive at those transitions. Through this minimalist throughline, the approach of the film was simple, yet elegantly so. The attention and care put into the specificity of this vision, as opposed to what one would anticipate in a modern Shakespeare film adaptation, is just part of what makes this version of Macbeth special.

The Acting

Likewise, the casting is equally unique and noteworthy, especially in the lead roles. Denzel Washington as the titular role isn’t the first thought of many: his prominence in contemporary or near-past dramas are what have previously landed him deserved critical acclaim as a film actor, as well as a strong collection of awards and nominations. However, his acting versatility is evident in his ability to do a period film (a minimalist one, but period nonetheless) with extreme fluency.

The dagger monologue was one of the high points of the film: Washington approaches a dagger glimmering in the distance, delivering the monologue with an apt mix of question and fortitude. Both alone and with other individuals or groups, Washington conveys a multi-faceted, complex approach of the Macbeth character in such a believable way. You feel his hopes, convictions, anxieties, and concluding madness so concretely through his performance. The chemistry with his counterpart, Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, was stellar. McDormand, too, filled her role with captivating variation in emotion, from placidity to passion to vulnerability, showcasing her character’s breadth.

It’s also worth mentioning that McDormand is also a producer for Tragedy of Macbeth, alongside director and screenwriter Joel Coen and Robert Graf.

The choice to cast Washington and McDormand was a beyond-perfect one. In fact, this may land both lead actors an Oscar nomination for their performances. Supporting roles were also breathtakingly believable, especially that of Kathryn Hunter as all three witches.

Final Thoughts

Though it doesn’t seem to be returning to IMAX anytime soon, I do recommend seeing this in theaters or on streaming when released. In the Q&A, Coen and McDormand made it clear that this adaptation of Macbeth is enjoyable from anywhere, including in your home; however, I’d love to see it appear in IMAX again and occupy the enormous size it did last weekend.

[1] Coen says, “It’s a thriller, and if you embrace that part of it, then it has to move. Where there is language from the original play that I omitted it was always to keep the pace going.” However, my first indication that there were cuts made (given my lack of close familiarity with the source material) came from another audience member at the screening, saying that despite “[making it] a little shorter,” Coen did a good job at staying true to the source.

[2] Individual AMC IMAX Theaters first played The Tragedy of Macbeth in IMAX, then streamed a live Q&A with Joel Coen and Frances McDormand from AMC Lincoln Square in New York City, hosted by The Met. The Chicago screening, and seemingly only the Chicago screening, suffered from technical issues. The audio of the Q&A was not heard until the very end of the stream.

Originally published at pizza.fm on December 9, 2021.

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Federico

Federico

Writer at Pizza FM, Media Consultant for Twocanoes Software, & Music Tech alumnus at UIUC (w/Spanish & Informatics Minors). Also a Songwriter/Sound Designer!