Film review: The Tragedy of Macbeth | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, February 21st, 2024  

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Studio: Apple/A24
Director: Joel Coen

Sep 30, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is his first film with no involvement from his brother Ethan, directing or otherwise, and is the Opening Night film at this year’s New York Film Festival. It’s the latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s evergreen material and is a visually gorgeous and morally striking portrait of a man tormented by his own thirst for power.

Macbeth, played by Denzel Washington, is a lord in Scotland who learns from three mysterious witches that he is going to be king one day. The news excites him greatly, and all of the events in his life seem to suggest that his kingship is imminent. Unfortunately, he and his wife, Lady Macbeth, played by Frances McDormand, grow impatient waiting for this day to come, so Macbeth decides to kill the current king and take his spot as ruler.

After succeeding in this mission and claiming the crown for himself, Macbeth rules his kingdom controlled by the fear that someone around him will try to take his place. He uses the witches for guidance and finds himself haunted by visions and apparitions. He uses his position and brute force to stop anyone whom he deems suspicious. His wife tries to help, but she too is plagued by problems of her own. Macbeth’s actions create a great number of enemies, including Malcolm (Henry Melling), the previous king’s son.

The Tragedy of Macbeth stays true to the source material. At the same time, it interprets it in new and innovative ways. The dialogue is straight Shakespeare off the page, which initially makes the film difficult to follow, particularly as it unfolds in a rapid, disorienting way. As the plot progresses, however, it becomes easier to get immersed in the world Coen has created. At this point, the film’s reliance on language makes it feel greater in scope. The emotionally charged dialogue pushes the film’s epic nature, even though the action scenes are sporadic and are relatively short in length when they do occur.

The decision to shoot in black-and-white, a filmmaking method growing more popular these days, was the right choice as The Tragedy of Macbeth has stunning visuals. The monochromatic palette adds abstraction, and a darker element to the story. The film’s use of intricate shadow work and dark contrasts highlight the horrifying nature of Macbeth’s actions. It’s difficult to picture how this adaptation would look and feel if it were shot in color. Additionally, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is some of the best work of the year so far. Right from the start, he crafts a setting so haunting and soulless, exhibiting a true understanding of the nature and meaning of Shakespeare’s story and the character of Macbeth.

Washington delivers an incredible, searing performance as Lord Macbeth. He flawlessly captures the raw and heavy emotions that eventually drive his character into madness. In her supporting role, which has far less screen time, when McDormand does make appearances, she is the perfect match for Washington. Not unlike stage productions of Shakespeare’s plays, the magic is in how the ensemble works together. The cast is stacked from top to bottom, including Brendan Gleeson as the original king and Corey Hawkins as one of Macbeth’s enemies.

The enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is evident in its many adaptations, including those by Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski and even Béla Tarr. Coen’s liberties with the story, as well as the atmospheric energy he maintains visually and narratively, helps his interpretation stand out from others. The story is centuries old, but watching this version of Macbeth feels like watching a completely original story. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10


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