Cinematic Fiction
Cinematic Fiction

Cinematic Fiction: Joel Coen's Macbeth

April 17, 2023
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A tale of ego, madness, and fate Shakespeare's Macbeth receives a symbolic upgrade from Director Joel Coen, in a purposeful “it’s a film, not a movie” kind of way: through the juxtaposition of dark and light.

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand | Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa © Courtesy of
Apple TV+ A24

With almost no furniture, no lush hazel lands, no beautiful blue skies, the film’s sets are mostly block-like architecture, suspended in air, full of shadows, silhouettes, and castle walls scant in crumbling rock.

Everything looks sterile, every scene a stark black and milky white, with slow-motion grays animated in steady-rolling fog, undulating clouds, and rising smoke. This symbolic passage of time against monolithic objects creates its own character: a silent but moving narrator, knowing what has been and what will be, like chalk dust still billowing from the professor’s eraser from the class before. 

“Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”  
(Act 1, Scene 3)

Macbeth’s fate is centuries old, and audiences already know how it ends – the apocalyptic undertone of all Shakespearian tragedies. Coen succeeds in presenting Macbeth as a stage play, but that cinematic "something extra" churns this adaptation into a uniquely modern masterpiece.

How did Coen handle the opening scene with the Weird Sisters? With soul-gripping contortionists, draped in black, professionally writhing and wrenching and chanting, "Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air." These witches are baddies. We would not mess with them. "Macbeth is in for an r-i-d-e!" I whispered softly, to myself, shoveling popcorn into my face.

The actors speak in classic Shakespearian language and deliver their lines with passionate dignity. Conspicuously excellent in every way, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a superior literary film achievement that is, if you're into this kind of thing.

“My mind [Coen] has mated, and amazed my sight.”
(Act 5, Scene 1)

We invite you to watch this impressive 2021 film streaming on Apple TV+.

Pick up your own copy of
Macbeth here.

For further reading, see what
Summer Says about Birnam Woody, a modern narrative twist on Macbeth.

Written by Lindsay McDuffie for

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