Film Review – The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Tragedy of Macbeth
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”
Equal parts dark, brooding, beautiful, and haunting, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) retells William Shakespeare’s doomed tale with striking artistry. “The Scottish Play” has been remade many times before – such as the recent Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard vehicle from 2015. But in the hands of writer/director Joel Coen (his first outing without his brother, Ethan), we get a reimagining that is both theatrical and cinematic. He sets the stage for his veteran actors to shine, creating a dreamlike world filled with jealousy, ambition, and guilt. This is not a realistic construction but one of the imagination, where characters become isolated within the prisons of their own minds.
The first thing we notice right away is Stefan Dechant’s production design and Bruno Delbonnel’s black and white photography. We enter a realm of deep shadows, where light and dark section off the frame with dramatic effect. The sets and props are realized with all sorts of sharp angles, creating expressionistic images all over the screen. In terms of style, this approach has a European flavor. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of the German Expressionism of Metropolis (1927) or the surrealism of The Seventh Seal (1957). Even though the setting is medieval times, there is very much a noirish atmosphere throughout. This makes sense since Coen has often dabbled in noir – see Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), or No Country for Old Men (2007) as a few examples.
Of course, none of the visuals would mean anything if Shakespeare’s words were not performed by a cast all performing at the height of their skills. Denzel Washington is electric as Macbeth. After receiving a prophecy from three witches and at the goading of his wife (an equally terrific Frances McDormand), Macbeth kills the king (Brendan Gleeson) and assumes his position on the throne. But taking the crown through violence does not come without a price. Almost immediately, Macbeth is overcome by internal and external problems – from the guilt he feels from killing a father figure, to the greed and ambition he and his wife share, to a host of lords and noblemen all seeking revenge. Amongst those seeking justice is the king’s son, Malcolm (Harry Melling) as well as Lord Macduff (Corey Hawkins). All these facets converge on Macbeth, forcing him deeper into his personal madhouse.
It goes without saying that Denzel Washington is one of our greatest actors. Here, he is given the opportunity to utilize every tool in his arsenal. His onscreen charisma fills Macbeth with a natural sense of authority, but Washington presents him with a wide range of emotional peaks and valleys. He is at his best when playing authority figures whose weaknesses and compulsions threaten their standing. During moments of contemplation, Macbeth will bring his voice down to a near whisper. In the very next scene, he will come right back up when he succumbs to the stress and shame of what he’s done. By the time he is running through the halls of his castle, belting at the top of his lungs and chasing crows, Washington has given a fully committed performance. There is never a time where he phones it in, or simply relies on the beauty of Shakespeare’s words to carry a scene. This is yet another memorable role in a career filled with them.
For a production that feels minimalistic in terms of cast and locations, there are numerous instances where the imagery leaves a lasting impact. A person standing alone in a cavernous room under a single spotlight, or when one is positioned at the end of a cliff with their silhouette plastered against the skyline – these are all moments that remain fixed in my head. The depiction of the three witches is particularly memorable. All performed by Kathryn Hunter, the witches have a supernatural presence. Shrouded in black cloaks and sporting low creepy voices, the witches act as harbingers of fate. Their premonitions hang over the entire narrative like a slow rolling fog, waiting for destiny to take its course.
One may wonder why Coen – who has routinely worked in comedies and crime thrillers – would want to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Looking at the result, we can see what it was that attracted him to this material. Seeing Macbeth and his wife conniving for the purpose of advancing their station has all the elements Coen has worked with before. Replace daggers with guns and Scotland with the Midwest and the parallels become clearer. Seeing the walls slowly collapse upon Macbeth has the same effect as when Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) stepped into hot water in Fargo (1996). In movies, when characters lose their sense of morality in hopes of a quick score, sometimes the universe punishes them in the worst way possible.
When you have this much talent, the outcome is nothing short of mesmerizing. The Tragedy of Macbeth may cover an age-old story, but the vision in which it was created feels fresh and exciting. I was pulled in immediately and remained transfixed for the entire duration. In a time where movies feel increasingly manufactured off an assembly line, here is an entry meticulously fashioned by artists who know exactly what they’re doing.