The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) Review

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) Director: Joel Coen


In his first solo outing as director, Joel Coen (of the Coen Brothers virtuoso directing partnership) delivers a visually arresting portrayal of Shakespeare’s famed “Scottish play” –an impeccable interpretation in the highest degree. Apparently Joel’s brother Ethan had grown weary of film-making and decided to pursue the theatre instead, and what resulted from Joel is a most laudable film. Denzel Washington gives a stoic, subtle performance as Macbeth, and Frances McDormand delivers an impenetrable performance as the sinister-turned-insane Lady Macbeth. However, Kathryn Hunter steals the show with her twisted, evil portrayal of the three Weird sisters, a performance which shows her crawling on the ground in all manner of deformed contortions as well as balancing on high-standing rafters before transforming into a flock of birds. Other notable appearances include Corey Hawkins as Macduff, Harry Melling as Malcolm, Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Alex Hassell as Rosse, and a brief cameo by Ralph Ineson.

This film is a delightful hodge-podge of allusions to its cinematic predecessors –it conveys the supernatural horror of Akira Kurasawa’s Throne of Blood, the brooding atmosphere of Orson Welles Macbeth, and yet it maintains a self-conscious awareness that we are in fact watching a play. The audience is aware that the drama is taking place on a soundstage rather than a grand battlefield as seen in the 2015 adaptation starring Michael Fassbender. In The Tragedy of Macbeth Coen offers us stark, barren scenes of sharply lit castle walls, with pounding echoes down dimly lit stone corridors, all filmed in black-and-white in the style of Carl Theodor Dreyer or Fritz Lang. In fact the film oozes with German Expressionism. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel certainly deserves high praise for his work here, as does composer Carter Burwell for his fittingly ominous score.

Behind the scenes the film was halted by the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and it was further dogged by staff turnover, particularly the departure of original producer Scott Rudin who resigned due to allegations of abusive behavior toward his staff.

There are a few slight changes from the Shakespearean text, such as Rosse’s secret payment to keep Fleance in hiding (in fact, Rosse plays a critical role in the film), however in all the film is a meticulous adaptation. One theme which the film returns us to time and again is the notion of childlessness. Reportedly, Coen cast both aging actors –Washington and McDormand– to highlight their inability to produce children. Their loveless, futureless bloodline is inextricably linked to tyrannical rule in Scotland. With neither joy nor hope, their vast stone walls lie empty and artless like a tomb, in a place where apparently no vegetation seems to grow and all color seems to have faded. Instead the Macbeth’s are content to simply cut down their own people, uprooting the future of Scotland, as in the case of the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s entire family. Their belief in a dark, supernatural prophecy leads them down a nihilistic path toward regicide which ultimately spells their own undoing, and this is all beautifully captured in Joel Coen’s magnificent cinematic adaptation.

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