The Tragedy of Macbeth Review: A Handsome Retelling Of The Shakespearean Classic

The Tragedy of Macbeth Review: A Handsome Retelling Of The Shakespearean Classic

Rating: 4/5

An all-too-familiar narrative about the insatiable lust for power, unbridled ambition, and a harrowing descent into madness, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the ultimate tale of loyalty, guilt, and fate. A story so ripe for cinematic picking, it has found itself adapted everywhere: from Bollywood’s stunning Maqbool, to countless British theatrical productions and even the 2015 film, Macbeth, helmed by Justin Kurzel.  

So, while 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is indeed an exquisitely crafted feature boasting the juggernaut Denzel Washington as the titular Macbeth, and the brilliant Frances McDormand as his conniving wife, it does raise the question: is the film another futile take on the classic? Hardly.

Stripping away the regal grandeur and sweeping scope of the adaptations that preceded it, The Tragedy of Macbeth reimagines the classic with an astute focus. Helmed only by one Coen sibling (terribly unusual for the brotherly duo who’ve collaborated for some 35 odd years), shot in jaw-dropping black-and-white, and filmed entirely on a studio soundstage, one could say that this was an audacious attempt, teetering on the brink of pretentiousness.  

But The Tragedy of Macbeth never feels like an artificial, self-indulgent exercise in bombarding the viewer with Shakespearean lines. If anything, it’s a somber, meditative retelling of Macbeth, the kind of film crafted with a fervent passion and supreme directorial control. 

As opposed to the folly of earlier adaptations, The Tragedy of Macbeth never idles with the world-building of imperial Scotland. This adaptation is minimalistic, quieter, and even better: it’s wholly riveting. Commencing straight after the battle, wherein Macbeth and Banquo led King Duncan’s army to victory over the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, the valiant pair are soon confronted by an enigmatic trio of witches. The witches prophesize that Macbeth shall soon assume the title of Thane of Cawdor, following which, he shall swiftly become the next King of Scotland. What follows is a vicious murder and a precarious play for power, as a tyrannical Macbeth, spurred to action by Lady Macbeth, plunges Scotland into a vicious civil war, eventually thrusting both husband and wife further into the realms of lunacy and death. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth Review: A Handsome Retelling Of The Shakespearean Classic

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy Of Macbeth (Credits: A24/IAC Films/Apple TV+)

The tale of Macbeth is as macabre and twisted as it gets, and Joel Coen fashions the film exactly as such. Devoid of color and constructed with the sensibilities of a stage play, The Tragedy of Macbeth enables Coen to cast his gleaming spotlight onto the vivid array of characters, and truly enrich their performances. The muted palette and stark sets work in conjunction to transfix a viewer with the Shakespearean language, and the wonderful performers recite it with unquestionable devotion. There’s never a stilted quality to the lines; every actor seems graced with almost a pedigree of Shakespearean recital. For a film so reliant on the efficacy of its script and the competence of its performers, Coen has meticulously handpicked the finest of them.

Whether it’s a fleeting moment with The Porter (a brilliant Stephen Root), the formidable Ross (a terrific Alex Hassell), or even Malcolm and Macduff (the mesmerizing pair of Harry Melling and Corey Hawkins), Coen extracts awe-inspiring performances from this remarkable bunch. It goes without saying that the film is squarely shouldered by a magnetic Denzel Washington and a marvelous Frances McDormand; their crackling chemistry as the notoriously scheming Macbeth and Lady Macbeth shines through in spectacular form. 

But despite the overwhelming flair of such an already impeccable cast, it’s Kathryn Hunter who remains the show-stopper, as she portrays The Three Witches who prophesize Macbeth’s fate. What she conjures onscreen is one of those exceedingly rare acting feats; the kind that enamors a viewer, and so effortlessly blurs the lines between performance and performer. 

The score, composed by the ever-reliable Carter Burwell, splendidly creeps into pivotal moments like an unseen spying force, but it just falls short of true musical greatness. It bears weight throughout the proceedings but is never enough to elevate the senses or the scenes themselves. It unfortunately, lingers in the background, when it needed to burst with rhythm and fury instead, bringing to mind Jed Kurzel’s perfectly evocative score on 2015’s Macbeth

In its barren, colorless topography, it’s Bruno Delbonnel’s wondrous cinematography which aligns exactly with  Coen’s austere storytelling. Comprising brooding shadows, threateningly empty spaces, and stark architecture, Delbonnel translates the mundanity of a soundstage into magnificent castles, elaborate forests, and colossal bedrooms. It’s certainly minimalistic and stripped to its bare bones, but it’s what powers all things essential about the Shakespearean play, and it’s ultimately what enhances the film itself.


The Tragedy of Macbeth Review: A Handsome Retelling Of The Shakespearean Classic
Bruno Delbonnel’s wondrous cinematography in The Tragedy of Macbeth (Credits: A24/IAC Films/ Apple TV+)

 Alas, for all its endless merits, The Tragedy of Macbeth sadly isn’t a flawless Coen feature. While Washington and McDormand tower over the proceedings with astounding performances, their chemistry as the calculative couple crackles, but never really sets ablaze. They faithfully recite Shakespearean lines and dispense every ounce of their acting proficiency, but their deceitful partnership and Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessly conspiring temperament is just mildly convincing. The ending also feels a tad bit hassled, and it’s here that the absence of live locations and elaborate set pieces is sorely felt. There are even kitschy, scattershot moments that awkwardly stand out, seeming mismatched in an otherwise perfectly crafted film.

It certainly isn’t a defining classic as of now, but The Tragedy of Macbeth might just be the most glorious and awe-inspiring adaptation of the Shakespearean classic yet.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now streaming on Apple TV+

Watch the trailer here

Author Biographical Note: The author is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Jai Hind College, Mumbai. He is currently working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue in the capacity of an intern. 

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