The Tragedy of Macbeth

Apple Original Films/A24

Reviewed for by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Joel Coen

Writer: Joel Coen

Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Kathryn Hunter, Corey Hawkins, Moses Ingram, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, and Bertie Carvel

Screened at: TCL Chinese Theaters, LA, 12/5/21

Opens: December 25th, 2021

The works of William Shakespeare have paved the way for centuries of new content in all forms of media. His plays are performed repeatedly and have been updated countless times throughout history, sometimes with an eye to modernizing their themes or presentation, and others with a straight fidelity to the original poetry. Film and television versions of his work often face a challenge given the need to enthrall audiences in a different format. The latest such effort, The Tragedy of Macbeth, strives for a mix of authenticity and creativity that produces an effective result.

The prophecies of the Witches (Kathryn Hunter) compel Macbeth (Denzel Washington) to plot his ascension to the Scottish throne, with his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) by his side. He is able to swiftly fell the reigning King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), but other threats prove more elusive, including Macduff (Corey Hawkins), Banquo (Bertie Carvel), and Ross (Alex Hassell). Macbeth’s belief in his own prosperous future eventually becomes his undoing as he can see nothing but a need for power that is all but certain not to last.

This reviewer must confess a lack of extensive familiarity with Shakespeare’s catalog, if only to acknowledge that there are those who will pick apart the specifics of each scene and shot choice due to a comprehensive and complete understanding of his work. This adaptation features all of its dialogue in rhyme and does little to transplant it from its original stage setting to some other cinematic space. Black-and-white cinematography enhances the intensity of each confrontation, and dark, bare surroundings make this doomed quest feel all the more foreboding and isolating.

This film comes from director Joel Coen, working behind the camera for the first time without his brother and usual collaborator Ethan Coen. Shakespeare devotees will surely be wondering what the eccentric filmmaker partially responsible for inventive features like Fargo and No Country for Old Men would bring to his version of this production. What is most apparent is a sharp focus on its performers and the framing of each of their momentous speeches thanks to the skilled eye of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who has worked with Coen on projects including Inside Llewyn Davis and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in the past.

It is interesting also to see how an actor like Washington, known primarily for his Oscar-winning performances in Glory and Training Day and the seemingly endless suite of action movies he has made in the past few decades, approaches his delivery of Shakespeare’s famous words. It’s fascinating to see his simple and straightforward utterances gradually turn passionate and forceful, showcasing a new side of Washington not often seen. McDormand, who took home her third Best Actress Oscar just last year for Nomadland and is married in real life to Coen, is also superb, bringing her signature wit and incomparable facial expressions to a classic role.

The two leads are not the only stars worthy of praise in this film. The casting of Hawkins and Moses Ingram as Macduff and Lady Macduff make their scenes far more memorable, and Harry Melling has a strong take on King Duncan’s son Malcolm. Hunter is haunting and formidable as the Witches, making them impossible to forget and playing perfectly into the creative framing of her few scenes. The true standout is Hassell, who leans into the part of the man with all of the information to serve as a connective thread for audiences. This visually striking production may not attract new fans to Shakespeare’s timeless work, but it does boast compelling choices and a keen artistry in its latest delivery of one of his most renowned plays.

105 minutes

Story – B+

Acting – B+

Technical – B+

Overall – B+

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