Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)


The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Directed by: Joel Coen | 105 minutes | drama | Actors: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson, Lucas Barker

After countless film adaptations of ‘Macbeth’, about the success and downfall of an ambition-blinded Scottish landlord and his wife, this time director Joel Coen takes a chance on this infamous play. In addition, Joel is working on a film production without brother Ethan for the first time. But hopefully this in itself innocent fact does not overshadow Joel’s neat performance with ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’. This adaptation of ‘the Scottish play’ can therefore compete with the best attempts in Hollywood to translate the work of William Shakespeare to the silver screen.

The minimalist sets and black-and-white cinematography in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ are to die for. They echo German expressionism in the silent film of the 1920s. The decor breathes as if it were its own character, as in ‘Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari’ (Robert Wiene, 1920). Nevertheless, the film struggles through the sometimes top-heavy lyrics in the beginning. However, when Shakespeare’s shrewd texts and Joel Coen’s delicate directorial choices coincide, it’s a joy to behold. There is an impressive sequence in which Macbeth, now king, gets into a fight with an old acquaintance during an official banquet. He follows his opponent into an abandoned tower room that fills with water and visions of witchcraft. Later, the uninvited guest turns out to be an unhinged crow. Macbeth is left spiritually destitute and you can sense that disaster is not far away. The way in which these visions are designed can almost only come from the quiver of a Coen. Very personal, but clearly grounded in the atmosphere of the entire film.

Still, it must be said that for such a cruel tragedy as Macbeth, both Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand are somewhat muted. Washington’s Macbeth mostly mumbles, turned inward. There is not much that can be said about this interpretation. However, it doesn’t ultimately lead to a memorable ‘Macbeth’. The same goes for Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. McDormand interprets the lady of the house, cared for down to the last detail, but lacks just a bit of rawness.

The Coen brothers are known for casting playful and unique heads for supporting roles, this solo project by Joel is no different. Kathryn Hunter is the best example. Not only her shrill voice, but also the way in which Hunter seems to squeeze her entire body in all kinds of impossible angles, contribute to her exceptional, Coenesque, interpretation of the witches. As impressive as it is, it’s partly distracting because she sometimes comes across as a prototype for Gollum (Andy Serkis) from ‘The Lord of The Rings’ film trilogy (2000-03).

Since Macbeth has been filmed many times by Hollywood, comparisons with predecessors are almost inevitable. The more realistic version (as well as Roman Polanski’s 1971) of 2015’s Justin Kurzel starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, which feels more age-cast than Washington and McDormand, is more than successful. However, Joel Coen’s Macbeth is most indebted to that of Orson Welles from 1948 and Laurence Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ film adaptation from the same year. Both filmmakers opted for the shady black and white and minimalist art direction for their cinematic Shakespeare odes. Welles’s version does look more dirty than Coen’s. After all, the story is about two power-hungry people who slowly but surely corrupt to the bone.

Although ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ does not always run smoothly on a dramatic level, the film closes decisively. In addition, Joel Coen colors too much within the lines for his actions. But those black-and-white lines are of wonderful quality etched into the film screen.