The Tragedy of Macbeth doesn’t diverge much from the source but still makes great use of the material.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on December 3, 2021
Rating 4 /5
Joel Coen’s take on Macbeth may be one of the most stereotypical arthouse-style takes on the material. The dialogue sticks close to the old-English delivery, the sets are towering blocks of gray, and the entire film is shot in stark black and white. It also has an A-list cast and a brilliantly moody appeal for embracing the surreal darkness that comes with a tale of revenge, murder, war, and betrayal.
Joel Coen’s take on this tale is highly adept and seems to embrace a throwback aspect to how the minimal approach is echoed in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. All of the dialogue is delivered forcefully with great speed and grand emotion. Basically, this film is a flex for a bunch of accomplished actors to see how well they know the material and how well they can work with such an old script. The good news is that they do not disappoint.
Perhaps the best way to talk about the film is exclusively through the performances. Denzel Washington plays the titular role with real power. He’s no stranger to playing conflicted and dangerous characters and he brings all his cold and vicious nature to this role. Frances McDormand plays Lady Macbeth with just as much force in her scheming as well as great desperation with her descent into madness. Corey Hawkins brings the fury to his rage-filled take on Macduff. Brendan Gleeson brings a dose of British gravitas to his minor but notable role as King Duncan. The same goes for the younger Harry Melling in the role of Malcolm.
I won’t pretend as though I will fully grasp the brevity of each line or compare it to the endless reiterations of such a play. I can say that there’s more than enough here to create a more distinct version than the more epic, cold, and prestigious presentation of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation. I’m sure some theater kid or Shakespeare nerd will have some hefty notes on this interpretation. For standing on its own, however, in a cinema landscape where Shakespeare’s works are not as frequently hitting the big screen, this film is a real treat.
There are a few strong visual choices that make this version stick out and last in the mind a bit longer. I really enjoyed the presentation of the witches all being played by Kathryn Hunter. At first, we only see Hunter, contorting her body as the witches seem to be all sharing one body. We then start seeing reflections of the other two witches in the waters below her and the shadows to her sides. She’ll also transform into crows that encircle death when the time comes to harp on the prophecies that come to pass.
The Tragedy of Macbeth doesn’t diverge much from the source but still makes great use of the material. The director by Joel Coen is strong and the bold contrast of the minimal sets lets the fantastic performances become all the more enticing. The effect is akin to having a night out at a small theater with a fantastic cast surprising you on such a small stage. It’s also a nice reminder that sometimes you don’t need the biggest production or most lavish of visual effects to craft compelling stories and performances. Sometimes all you need is a light, a line, and a desire to showcase the depths of humanity in your words and actions.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.