REVIEW: The Tragedy of Macbeth [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 105 minutes
    Release Date: December 25th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: A24 / Apple TV+
    Director(s): Joel Coen
    Writer(s): Joel Coen / William Shakespeare (play “Macbeth”)

Come what come may.

If a crazy person tells you something crazy about your future, you laugh it off. If that thing they said starts coming to fruition, however, you wonder if it might be true. Add ambition and greed to the mix and the impulse to push towards that impossible result grows until you’re acting against character with fear and paranoia working to ensure its truth. Does the prophecy therefore prove correct? Or have you willed it to be so by your own grisly deeds? Is there a difference? Because once that seed is planted, it only needs a little support to begin its maturation. And when you have a partner to see it through like Macbeth (Denzel Washington) does his wife (Frances McDormand), the pot will soon begin to break.

It’s weird to think about, but I’m quite certain Joel Coen‘s The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first “true” cinematic adaptation of that Shakespeare play I’ve seen. Despite reading it in school, my point of reference for everything that occurred was the comedic retelling Scotland, PA instead. So, it was no surprise to find myself a bit lost at the start with Ralph Ineson‘s injured captain and Lady Macbeth’s cousin Ross (Alex Hassell) explaining to the Scottish king Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) about what just transpired on the battlefield. Thanes, Norway, Ireland—titles and countries are bandied about so rapidly that I merely settled myself with the realization that Macbeth and his friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel) defeated their enemies and that their king should rejoice because of that victory.

Enter the witches (Kathryn Hunter in a stunningly visceral performance) who fly in as crows before acquiring human shape via one body, two reflections, and three voices. They tell Macbeth what’s to come, calling him by titles he hasn’t yet earned and of his ascension to the throne. Skeptical, Banquo asks about his future only to be told his son will also become king. Between the obvious conflict, eccentric messenger, and wary journey, they dismiss the ordeal as a lark until arriving at Duncan’s camp to learn the first title was in fact already given to Macbeth in their absence. Could it be true? The possibility gets him wanting it either way. Macbeth therefore writes his wife, plans a party, and decides to take what’s been fated now.

Suddenly everything falls into place. Duncan is a good king. Everyone respects him. And Macbeth is a trusted ally. As such, no one will suspect that said trusted ally betrayed him if his tracks are covered. That’s where Lady Macbeth, poison, daggers, and lies come in. Blame the king’s guards. Anticipate Duncan’s heirs (led by Harry Melling‘s Malcolm) fleeing in fear and accuse them as part of the conspiracy. Take the crown as next in line and lead well enough that nobody will ever question the holes arising when looking too close at the crime. Except that the latter isn’t so easy when you’re racked with guilt and haunted by demons. Suddenly everyone becomes a potential threat with Macbeth believing his safety is only assured with more bloodshed.

You know the rest. It’s “Macbeth”. If you don’t, let the plot machinations wash over you unencumbered. Either way, continue with this version straight to the end because it is both beautifully acted and magnificently produced. Bruno Delbonnel‘s cinematography is breath-taking—its high contrast black and white always diffused by smoke or augmented by elaborate sets and/or composites that turns what looks to be a simple soundstage into the castles of Scotland. Carter Burwell‘s score is barely noticeable in the best way possible so that the Bard’s words can shine brightest as they flow from this fantastic collection of actors (the Coen Brothers, Ethan is absent for the first time in their shared careers, have always had superb casts) pulling their weight no matter how brief the role.

I’m thinking about Stephen Root as the hilarious Porter and Carvel as the dutiful protector of crown, king, and family. Hunter’s many roles (she plays the Old Man too) add up to less than twenty minutes of screen time, but she’s so good that you’ll think she was cawing and contorting for much longer. Only Washington with his gradual descent towards madness and McDormand with her incredulous reactions to him ruining their plan can approach what she’s doing as the three witches. Not that we should forget Hassell or Corey Hawkins‘ Macduff in the process. The latter is simply the best of them all and therefore less showy in his dignified air. And the former is too mysterious in his seemingly duplicitous nature to get a handle on.

And that makes sense considering the title. This is the Macbeths’ show. Everyone else is merely an object along their path to be dealt with when necessary (or when the warped visage of power turning Macbeth’s mind inside-out believes it so). Coen pulls no punches with how dark that journey gets too. He portrays it with taste and artistic flourish, never exploiting the reality that innocents lose their lives throughout for shock value. The line separating stage and screen is very thin as a result. One could imagine Coen directing a very similar version on-stage with the elaborate camera angles being the only true casualty. It’s as though he planned everything out for Broadway to ensure the actors remained grounded before expanding his visual scope to cinematic heights.

[1] Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand (L-R) Photo by: Alison Cohen Rosa
[2] Kathryn Hunter Photo by: Alison Cohen Rosa
[3] Corey Hawkins Photo by: Alison Cohen Rosa

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