The Tragedy of Macbeth, 2021.
Written and Directed by Joel Coen.
Starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Lucas Barker, Stephen Root, Robert Gilbert, Ethan Hutchison, James Udom, Richard Short, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Ralph Ineson.
A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power.
Even with such a revered filmmaker at the helm in Joel Coen (his first directorial effort without collaborating with his brother Ethan), I admittedly had some reservations about how impactful yet another interpretation of William Shakespeare’s iconic cursed Scottish play Macbeth would feel. Not only is it a story nearly everyone knows from high school curriculum or cultural osmosis, but not even five years ago saw a version from Justin Kurzel boasting some impressive leading turns and dazzling color. And if you didn’t see it, chances are you have seen one of several legendary filmmakers take on the story. Fortunately, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels both unlike anything in the Coen filmography (although this is not the first black-and-white film from him, it also has the added distinction of the Academy ratio and shot on a soundstage) while still possessing themes that have been affecting their protagonists for decades.
With that in mind, the real reason to see The Tragedy of Macbeth goes beyond Joel Coen’s take on staples of the story (whether it be a disturbing which hauntingly played by Kathryn Hunter, newly ascended king and queen descending into madness, the thrilling final battle, and more). In the titular role, Denzel Washington is utterly mesmerizing, weaving his trademark mannerisms and vocal tics into classic Shakespeare monologues, resulting in something fresh and new. Equally compelling are Denzel Washington’s bursts of rage and impressive brute force physicality. He plays all the familiar beats, primarily honoring the source material with the dialogue; beyond that, there’s more Denzel Washington in the performance than there is Macbeth, but such a balanced combination that it renders this embodying of the character hip and traditional.
Also compelling is Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, excelling at egging her man on while calling his cynicism regarding the foretold prophecy of becoming king. Of course, such future predictions are told by three witches, visually realized here as decrepit humanoid crows with flappy birdlike arms. It’s creepy and unsettling while proving that Joel Coen is aware that it’s not so much the language that should be tinkered with (he also adapted this version for the screen by himself) but the imagery. Take the black-and-white aesthetics, allowing shadows to dominate almost every frame, which turns out to be additionally unnerving given the ongoing suspicion and paranoia throughout the narrative.
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are an undeniably electric pairing, devouring memorable monologues and extended passages as a screen duo. The Tragedy of Macbeth remains a story of corruption and ambition, with stunning monochrome photography from Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) dynamically coming alive from visions, leaves, and ghost sightings. The stageplay roots are embraced, coupled with poetic kinetic energy. It’s also not just a visual feast for the eyes, as the sound design takes advantage of the anxious tone with loud thuds that are sometimes methodically set to droplets of rainwater striking solid matter.
There’s also room for a relatively strong supporting cast to shine without much actual character development, including Corey Hawkins as Macduff (the amount of diversity in the casting of this adaptation is another highlight), Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Harry Melling as the king’s son, and glorified cameos from the likes of Stephen Root and Ralph Ineson. They can all convey the story through body language, which is also a plus for anyone coming into this without brushing up on the Shakespeare lexicon. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those obsessed with Macbeth might not find enough narratively different or exciting beyond the technical craft and performances. Regardless, the film takes a bit of time to really start engaging aside from visuals.
Again, Joel Coen knows that any emotional resonance or lingering response to the story will come from getting creative with the imagery. In that regard, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a triumph of Coen. Come for the classic tale or maybe even one of the most talented filmmakers of the generation’s first solo effort, but stay for the livewire and magnificently maddening embodiment of Macbeth from Denzel Washington.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com