‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Review: A Hypnotic, Haunting Shakespearean Tale

Figures that the least Coen-y films are the ones by Coen Brothers I like the most.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is an adaptation of the famed William Shakespeare play by Joel Coen, his first credited solo directing effort without his brother Ethan. Denzel Washington stars in the titular role, with Frances McDormand (also a producer here as well as Coen’s wife) playing his plotting wife. Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, and Brendan Gleeson also star.

2021 has been the year of the black-and-white film, with “Macbeth” joining the likes of “Passing,” “Belfast,” “Malcolm & Marie,” and “The French Dispatch” (you could also lump in the “Justice Is Grey” version of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” in there if you’re feeling frisky). Coen’s film uses the technique to put emphasis on shadows and give things an old-timey German expressionism feel, and partnered with a unique production design creates a hypnotic take on an age-old tale.

Denzel Washington will never be bad in a film, like Tom Hanks or Leonardo DiCaprio he’s just one of those talents. Here he gets to recite classical monologues and transition from hesitant and loyal soldier to crazed tyrant. As his wife, Frances McDormand feels a bit underused, but is effective nevertheless.

The real hook of the film, however, is the aesthetic. Shot entirely on a soundstage, the film feels small in scope but not quite like a staged play. Shadows and sharp edges fill the frame, giving off vibes similar to the classic adaptations of the silent era. Much like “Roma” there is something haunting and hypnotic about the black-and-white imagery.

The film doesn’t stray too far from the source material, and in some regards is loyal to a fault. To my limited knowledge of the play, there is only one creative decision that Coen makes, choosing to make a plot point fully known to the audience instead of ambiguous like it is in the play. It didn’t really bother me, but it’s just one of those little things that would’ve made the climax all the more effective.

Being Shakespearean dialogue there are times where you have to really process what characters say, and at other points may miss out what was said entirely. It is fun at points to try and decode the phrases, analogies, and insults that characters throw at one another in 1600s tongue, though it can be annoying at times, too.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a relatively simple film, but is wildly effective in achieving its goals. Various shots and moments are still lingering in my mind, and it goes to show some stories will never get tired of being told.

Critics Rating: 8/10

A24/Apple TV+

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