The Tragedy of Macbeth review

Having a film with multiple Academy Award winners Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and director/screenwriter Joel Coen is basically a cheat code for an Oscar nomination. Getting that talented trio to work on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved — and frequently adapted for the big screen — plays doesn’t hurt either.

In what should be a surprise to exactly no one, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a stunning film with two pencil them in Oscar nominated performances from Washington and McDormand. And even without collaborating with his brother, Ethan, Joel Coen should be a strong contender for director consideration as well.

The challenge with adapting Macbeth at this stage is there’s been so many big screen takes on it — over 20 — that it takes a filmmaker with a unique vision to make their version stand out. Coen goes for a stark black and white visual with a minimalist approach.

the tragedy of macbeth review -denzel washington and frances mcdormand as the macbeths

With an embarrassment of acting talent, it’s not the worst strategy to avoid showing set pieces and keep the focus on the performers. A Baz Luhrmann take on Macbeth for example would undoubtedly be dazzling with an emphasis on visual flair that might eventually prove distracting.

Going black and white in an era of showy CGI bonanzas might have been a risk, but there’s something classic and vintage with this approach. One that still manages to make a timeless classic feel modern and relevant.

Maybe some of that is simply from the casting. This version features far more persons of color than your regular Shakespearean adaptation. It felt revelatory for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to cast Harold Perrineau and John Leguizamo as Mercutio and Tybalt. Coen’s version normalizes diversity to the point it doesn’t feel like a novelty.

the tragedy of macbeth review -moses ingram as lady macduff

Shakespeare’s story doesn’t need tinkering, so Coen doesn’t alter the tale too dramatically. Macbeth (Washington, The Little Things) starts to have grand ambitions about his legacy. Goaded on by his equally ambitious wife (McDormand, Nomadland), Macbeth kills his good friend, Ducan (Brendan Gleeson, Paddington 2) and assumes the throne as the King of Scotland.

The steps to seize and keep the throne slowly drive Macbeth mad. Washington has made a career out of playing calm, even-keeled characters with an occasional dramatic flare-up that’s catnip for Oscar voters. Macbeth is such an obvious character for Washington it’s only surprising it’s taken him this long to be cast in the role.

Macbeth does offer plenty of opportunities for an actor to go well over the top in conveying his descent to madness. Washington is savvier though and limits the big-time showy moments for maximum efficiency.


Likewise, Lady Macbeth is plagued by guilt for her role in the regicide allowing McDormand has more moments to shine early on as the play and script reduce her impact in the second half. Still, McDormand’s earlier scenes where she conveys a gamut of emotions from calculating schemer to sly motivator are tremendous.

Alex Hassell (Cowboy Bebop) gets the most nuanced role as Ross, the loyal messenger to the king, who isn’t averse to carrying out his own agenda. It’s a good role for Hassell, who plays Ross with enough ambiguity to make his motives mysterious.

the tragedy of macbeth review -corey hawkins as macduff

Corey Hawkins (6 Underground) has a strong supporting role as the heroic Macduff seeking to avenge the horrible atrocities Macbeth committed against his loved ones. Hawkins feels like he’s on a Michael B. Jordan trajectory where he keeps stacking reliably solid performances after another until he becomes the leading man in all of his projects.

It’s Kathryn Hunter who delivers the film’s most magnetic performance. Hunter plays the witches that share a prophecy with Macbeth that sends him spiraling down this dark path.

the tragedy of macbeth review - kathryn hunter as a witch

Hunter’s delivery of the dialogue is haunting and the manner she contorts her body in these scenes is spellbinding. The Supporting Actress category is always cluttered, but Hunter deserves recognition for her performance.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes terrific use of the soundstage sets giving the castles a spacious, towering impression with ample empty corridors. They’re fitting for plotting and scheming. Lighting is key as well, so important details don’t get washed out in heavy dominating blacks.

the tragedy of macbeth review -frances mcdormand as lady macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth could just roll out its cast and reap the accolades. Coen makes this a memorable take with this actor’s showcase presentation and striking visuals making for one of the year’s best films.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Photo Credit: A24

Check out the 2015 Macbeth adaptation starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard on Amazon Prime.

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