Joel Cohen’s ‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ cuts down the Shakespeare classic to the bare essentials

Joel Cohen’s ‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ cuts down the Shakespeare classic to the bare essentials

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We’re 88Nine’s Justin Barney and Milwaukee Film’s Kpolly. We’re buds, we like cinema — we’re Cinebuds.

In Joel Cohen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” less is more. Many of the film adaptations of Macbeth stretch to the two and a half hour mark, but Cohen cuts an hour off and tells the bloody story of ambition and murder in a tight hour and a half, which is just about as much as most people can take of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and old English. To help decipher the language, “The Tragedy of Macbeth’s” actors speak, instead of shouting the lines. Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is inward and quiet, his soft tone and inflection give auditory cues to the language to make it sound more natural. Which, in turn, highlights the motivations that Shakespeare has beautifully written into each character and which is why the 400 year old story endures. Cohen also offers less in set dressing. Each shot in an austere black and white, shots often bordering on abstraction, Cohen’s Macbeth is pared down to its barest essentials, and as an audience, we are rewarded because of his restraint. 

Part of the fun of retelling a 400 year old story that has been done countless times is to compare and contrast adaptations of the story. In preparation for “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” I watched four other Macbeth adaptations. Orson Welles’ 1948 adaptation, Kurosawa’s Macbethian adaptation of feudal Japan, “Throne of Blood,” a 2001 modern adaptation starring Christopher Walken who investigates the takeover of a 1970’s fast food empire by an ambitious employee whose last name is McBeth, and the most recent 2015 adaptation starring Michael Fassbender. We will see how “Tragedy” stands up to those.

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