Moviegoer: The Tragedy of Macbeth

Joel Coen’s minimalist take on the Scottish play is a wonder to behold

By Diana Beechener

After a successful battle, Thane of Glamis Macbeth (Denzel Washington: The Little Things) is content to go home to his wife. But an encounter with three weird sisters (all played by Kathryn Hunter) sparks ambition in him. The women tell Macbeth that he’s destined to be king of Scotland, not just a thane. Skeptical at first, Macbeth is convinced there may be some magical truth to the women when they turn into ravens.

         Thus inspired, Macbeth tells his wife, Lady Macbeth (Francis McDormand: The French Dispatch) of the prophecy and they hatch a plan. Waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled naturally might take years. If they dispatch the king, Macbeth can begin his rule without waiting on fate. It seems simple, but as the word tragedy in the title might have hinted—things don’t always go to plan.

         If you’ve made it through high school, chances are you’ve encountered Macbeth at some point in your academic career. The challenge, then, for director Joel Coen (in his first feature film without brother Ethan by his side) is to adapt the play in a new and interesting way. He does so brilliantly, the result being one of the most singularly stunning films of the year.

One of the choices Coen makes that enhances the production is aging-up the stars. Both Washington and McDormand are older than the leading duo in the original play, but their age lends a sense of urgency to their motivation. Instead of being blinded by ambition, this Macbeth is more seasoned. Washington imbues his performance with a feeling that he’s owed greatness after his years of service.

         Another brilliant choice is the cinematography that borrows from both the German Expressionist and Surrealist cinematic movements. Nothing quite looks real in this black and white scape, and that dreamlike quality becomes unsettling as the plot progresses. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (The Woman in The Window) keeps the contrast high and finds new and interesting ways to transition scenes. The whole film feels like a foreboding fever dream, and it’s absolutely stunning to behold.

         The last inspired choice made by Coen was to cast a powerful ensemble of actors (including his wife, McDormand). Washington and McDormand find fresh twists on well-known speeches. They have an excellent chemistry and seem to relish playing off each other. Washington, in particular, is delightful in a scene involving the chasing of ravens. The supporting cast, including Hunter’s film-stealing turn as the weird sisters, offers up some fantastic work as well. 

         While Coen has certainly made an excellent film, he has strayed from the formula that viewers might expect from a Coen-helmed movie. The dark humor and playfulness that marks his usual work is stripped away, leaving a stark, cold, and beautiful film. Attention students thinking this movie is the shortcut to a good grade: The Tragedy of Macbeth isn’t the adaptation that should serve as the foundation of your book report. Coen streamlines Shakespeare’s work, adding characters to scenes and cutting lines. It’s also not forgiving of those unfamiliar with the language or the story—the audience is merely thrown in and expected to understand.

         In the end, whether or not The Tragedy of Macbeth is a triumph or a bore is dependent upon the viewer. If you find Shakespeare a snooze, then this will not be the film to win you over. If you’re a fan of the Bard’s work, this is a gorgeous embodiment of the play, with some of the most gripping visuals ever put to film. This reviewer falls into the later camp, and I’ll be picking apart the scenes and symbolism for years to come.

Great Drama * R * 105 mins.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is in theaters now and available to Apple TV+ subscribers Jan. 14