“The Tragedy of Macbeth” Review

Photo courtesy of AppleTV+

Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stays true to Shakespeare’s work, for better or worse.

Anytime someone tries to tackle a Shakespeare classic, they can either embrace that their movie is destined for high school English classrooms or attempt to modernize it like “West Side Story.” Joel Coen takes the former approach in this movie that seemingly wants to be a play. In some ways, that is a strength but in others a weakness.

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” features several artistic choices that likely aren’t for everyone. For starters, it is in black and white, which only adds to the desolate scenery and ambient music. A thick fog constantly obscures the background, only revealing bits and pieces of the countryside or the castle. This in particular is used to great effect at keeping your eyes fixed on the actors. The sets are angular and sharp, with plenty of nooks and crannies to create optical illusions with the light. Overall, these artistic choices are very strong and support the film, but I can see some people being bored with them.

One choice that Coen made in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” was to not update the dialogue. Because of that, the first 15 minutes of the movie will likely be spent just getting used to how they talk. At times the characters mutter to themselves, indicating that it is internal dialogue to a play audience, but it is at times too quiet for a movie. Subtitles are an absolute requirement for watching this film, which is a shame because it distracts from the extremely-calculated set design.

Since the characters all know each other before the film starts, they fail to introduce themselves. This led to me constantly wondering who people were and why they mattered (looking at you “Siward”) and my wife pulling up Sparknotes. 

Despite some characters not being named, there are still some excellent performances given. Denzel Washington as the titular character starts off timid and unsure but grows more and more confident throughout the film. He delivers a powerful performance in the closing acts that shows why he gets paid the big bucks. Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth starts out as the calculating and manipulative wife but quickly spirals into insanity. While the plot does little to explain why this happens, McDormand absolutely makes it convincing. The Weird Sisters are played by Kathryn Hunter who does her best Gollum impression which is somehow a compliment.

Full disclosure, I have never read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” but the movie made me curious enough to give it a shot in the future. Part of that curiosity is because I did enjoy some parts of the movie. The rest of it is rooted in finding out who people were or if Shakespeare actually wrote it that vaguely.

Star Rating: 3.5\5

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