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The Tragedy of Macbeth Movie Review

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) movie poster The Tragedy of Macbeth

Theatrical Release: December25, 2021

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R

Director: Joel Coen / Writers: Joel Coen (screenplay); William Shakespeare (play)

Cast: Denzel Washington (Macbeth), Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth), Corey Hawkins (Macduff), Brendan Gleeson (King Duncan), Harry Melling (Malcolm), Bertie Carvel (Banquo), Alex Hassell (Ross), Kathryn Hunter (The Witches), Moses Ingram (Lady Macduff), Ralph Ineson (The Captain) Sean Patrick Thomas (Monteith), Stephen Root (The Porter)


Many regard William Shakespeare as the greatest wordsmith the English language has known. That does not make his plays especially well-suited to film adaptation. To change the Immortal Bard's words would be tantamount to sacrilege.
To leave them as is leaves us with a story of immense cultural familiarity being told in an archaic tongue that no mere mortal can process and digest in real time. This double-edged sword has not stopped many a respected filmmaker from trying to bring Shakespeare's works to the screen, from Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles back in the Golden Age of Hollywood to the likes of Baz Luhrmann and Kenneth Branagh in more modern times.

The latest Shakespeare adaptation is The Tragedy of Macbeth, a film from Joel Coen, half of cinema's most highly regarded brother act of the past forty years. Although his brother and consistent co-writer Ethan was not credited as co-director until shortly before their shared Academy Award wins for 2007's Best Picture No Country for Old Men, this represents Joel's first solo effort of his career. But he's not exactly on his own, with esteemed sexagenarians Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand at the head of his distinguished cast. McDormand, Joel's wife of 37 years, is presently at a peak, arriving here hot on the heels of her third Best Actress Oscar, this time for reigning Best Picture winner Nomadland.

Denzel Washington makes a rare foray into the world of art cinema as the leading man of Joel Coen's monochromatic "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

Not even a master of cinema as accomplished as Coen can make Macbeth palpable and resonant for a viewer who does not show up with a deep love and understanding of Shakespeare's play already firm in heart. The director makes some bold choices here, opting to film this in black and white, in the archaic squarish 1.37:1 Academy Ratio and in IMAX, using striking minimalist sets in defiance of modern filmgoers' tastes. Not that the Coens have ever been commercial favorites. They flirted with that world on their Christmas 2010 remake True Grit, an enjoyable Western their instincts served well. But for the most part, the biggest movie stars around (Clooney, Pitt, Tatum, Johanssen) have not yielded box office success for the siblings and that's been in pre-pandemic times when the industry isn't scrambling to get the world back to its regular moviegoing habits.

Macbeth will add to Coen's near-perfect critical legacy while dragging down the career averages of Washington, who's now in his fifth decade of attracting crowds. Other critics will praise cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's use of shadows and contrast and the cast's ability to sink their teeth into these early 17th century turns of phrase.
But the average viewer will grow bored, quite possibly more taken by one cast member's impossibly bushy eyebrows, the liberal and obvious use of a stunt double for Washington in climactic fight scenes, and the staggering number of Harry Potter actors enlisted here.

The play should move with its story of a general given a prophecy from a trio of witches that he will one day wear Scotland's crown. That comes true when he slays the king (Brendan Gleeson) and has to kill others still to cover his tracks and defend the throne. But in 2021 it's hard to find much of relevance in this tragedy or to relate to the feelings that drive Macbeth and his wife to madness and their undoing. Furthermore, in an age in which non-superhero works seem genuinely endangered on the big screen, the film depressingly has been acquired as an Apple TV+ original, to begin streaming there some twenty days after it opens in theaters on Christmas Day from the hippest indie distributor around, A24. In fairness, as easy as it is to bemoan the fact that filmmakers as great as Coen and Cuaron and Scorsese have to turn to streaming services to find their financial backing, it's just as hard to make the argument that this is a movie that will draw masses to theaters at Christmas at a time when House of Gucci has just hobbled past the $30 million mark domestically.

On the heels of her third Academy Award win for Best Actress, Frances McDormand plays Lady Macbeth in her husband's "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

As if to pre-empt this inevitable commercial disappointment, A24 took the step of screening this for free on the first Sunday of December followed by a Q & A with cast and crew. In the Minneapolis area, this was as well-attended as any recent advance screening, packed with presumably theatre track college students who were far more excited for a black and white Shakespearean film adaptation than your average teens would be. Alas, it started forty-five minutes late and within a few minutes, I was convinced that this film's greatest contributions to Shakespeare's vast IMDb filmography would be visual in nature. Those will largely be lost when it is streamed on a television or tablet or cell phone instead of projected onto a larger than usual screen. With this dramatic exercise out of his system, I hope that Coen and his brother will soon reunite and be back with more of the witty, precise genre-bending work for which they are beloved by cineastes.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: A Journal for Jordan West Side Story House of Gucci
Denzel Washington: Fences Roman J. Israel, Esq. | Frances McDormand: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Blood Simple
Directed by Joel Coen: Hail, Caesar! The Big Lebowski Inside Llewyn Davis Fargo No Country for Old Men

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Reviewed January 4, 2022.

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