The Tragedy of Macbeth follows in the footsteps of Orson Welles’s 1948 film, which showed how imagination can turn Shakespeare’s text into more than a costume epic

With Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth streaming and in cinemas, I am struck by the way this particular Shakespeare tragedy acts as a magnet for movie-makers. It has obvious attractions: it is short, atmospheric, confronts the nature of evil and is open to adaptation. Parallel versions range from Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent samurai epic Throne of Blood to a low-budget film noir from the 1950s, Joe Macbeth. But, after viewing four versions that stick closer to the original text, I am intrigued to see what they tell us about the filming of Shakespeare.

Although it got rave reviews and has some original touches – such as opening with the silent burial of the Macbeths’ child – I was least impressed by Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film. There is no denying Kurzel’s visual sense: we get epic battles and seductive shots of mist-wreathed Scottish landscapes. But, put bluntly, the film seems terrified of Shakespeare’s language: Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths speak in hushed, conversational tones and insert pauses between each line that would make Pinter blush. “If we should fail?” asks Macbeth of the projected murder of Duncan. Five seconds later Lady M finally gets round to replying: “We fail.”

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