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Kate O'Hare explores how the striking black-and-white version of Shakespeare's play opens up the classic tale of ambition gone wrong to a new audience.

If young people can be made to love Shakespeare, a lifetime of discovery awaits them. They can plumb the depths of history and the human heart, elevate their understanding and their language, soar to the heights of love and sacrifice or get down in the dirt of frailty and sin.

While there's nothing like seeing the plays live, there are films that transcend that medium and show that the Bard can be a great movie experience, too—and one of those is AppleTV+'s new The Tragedy of Macbeth.

While Romeo and Juliet may enchant teenage girls, Macbeth is almost tailor-made for turning teen boys into Shakespeare fans. It's one of the Bard's shortest and most tough-minded plays, with strongly masculine characters, lots of swordfighting and lessons about the bitter wages of pride and ambition (and of listening to fortune-tellers).

Adapted for the screen and directed by Joel Coen, The Tragedy of Macbeth ages up the leads, with sixtysomething acting legends Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand (a.k.a. Mrs. Coen) as, respectively, 11th-century Scottish noble (or "thane") Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth.

But there's plenty of young talent on hand in the diverse cast, including Corey Hawkins as Macduff, and Harry Melling as Prince Malcolm.

Shot in stark black-and-white on minimalist, surrealistic soundstages in Los Angeles, the film evokes a medieval, Gothic feel while also having a sharp modern edge.

Victory in war and the favor of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) aren't enough for Macbeth, especially after the witch-like Weird Sisters (played by Kathryn Hunter, in a role normally played by three actors) prophesy that he will be king.

But there's a sting in the tail of that prediction—Macbeth's friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel) will not be king, but his descendants will be. Since Macbeth is childless, his hopes of royal glory end with him.

Egged on by his fierce wife, Macbeth murders Duncan and seizes the crown. But his victory is a hollow one, as neither he nor his wife can escape the consequences—especially the psychological ones—of what they’ve done.

Lady Macbeth remains one of the greatest female characters of all time (even if, in Shakespeare's day, she had to be played by a man), and her descent into madness is one of the most searing psychodramas ever created.

The film is still in theaters, but it's also streaming on AppleTV+ (where captions can help bridge the language barrier). This is Shakespeare, so there aren't modern swear words, and there's no nudity in this version, but it is rated R for violence.

Somehow the black-and-white photography blunts the visual impact of the violence (which is strong but not over the top) but enhances the tension and the shock of the acts. Be warned: these include the murders of a mother and her children.


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Also, you don't need to know the ins and outs of Scottish history to appreciate the story on its own merits. But, some Googling can reveal that Shakespeare indeed drew on actual history and legend to construct his fictional story.

The ambition, evil and power struggles plaguing the world of The Tragedy of Macbeth are very much alive in our world. This 21st-century movie based on a 17th-century play—it premiered in 1606—about an 11th-century Scot remains as relevant as today's headlines.

Not to mention, especially if you turn on the captions, so you don't miss any of the lines, you may be surprised to discover just how much of Macbeth has made its way into the language and popular culture (including the titles of a Ray Bradbury book and an episode of the original Star Trek).

So, if your teen is mature enough—and I don't recommend this for younger children—The Tragedy of Macbeth, clocking in at just 105 minutes, may be just the thing to hook him or her on the Bard forever.

The film had a theatrical release in December and is still in some theaters. No release date yet for DVD/Blu-Ray.



Copyright 2022 Kate O'Hare
Images (from top): Canva Pro; AppleTV+, all rights reserved.