The Tragedy of Macbeth

As Scottish King Duncan’s (Brendan Gleeson) generals Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel, 2012's "Les Misérables") travel home from victory on the battlefield, they encounter three witches (all theater actress Kathryn Hunter) who prophesy that Macbeth will be named Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland and that Banquo’s descendents will be kings.  Upon meeting up with a grateful Duncan, Macbeth is given the Cawdor title and so he and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), collude to hasten the second prophesy.  One murder leads to many in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

Laura's Review: C

Sometimes a film just aggressively leaves one cold, and so it is for me with writer/director Joel Coen’s first stab at Shakespeare (and first film directed without his brother Ethan), inspired by his wife’s (McDormand) 2016 take on the role of Lady Macbeth at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The set bound brutalist architecture of the piece screams Albert Speer more than Scotland and while Coen has pared down the text, I find no new insights, just a greater rush to slaughter.  Washington’s performance signals exhaustion, McDormand’s single-mindedness before she drifts off into walking slumber.  And while Bruno Delbonnel’s silvery, misty, close-up cinematography is striking, all the German Expressionism on display renders this one “Lady Macbeth in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

Coen’s choice to come at the material via a visual psychological angle has the odd effect of leaving one at arms length from the characters emotionally, only the fate of Macduff’s wife (Moses Ingram) and son (Ethan Hutchinson) hitting home.  Kathryn Hunter’s frog-throated contortionist of a witch (x3) is so supernaturally alien, she’s like this film’s special effect, yet live cawing crows often look like CGI creations, especially at the film’s conclusion.  The Scottish play delves into the darkest aspects of human nature, the famed corrupting influence of power, but while Coen’s production design is pitch black, his adaptation is muted.

Robin's Review: C

I doubt that there is a semi-literate person in the western world who has not heard of the story of Shakespeare’s ambitious king, Macbeth. But, when was the last time you actually watched any play, on stage or film, by the Bard, never mind “The Tragedy of Macbeth”?

I can say, quite honestly, that it has been a long while since I saw a straightforward rendition of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” I think it may have been the 2013 filmed stage rendition starring Kenneth Branagh. In this new adaptation, Denzel Washington plays the part of the eager warrior with eyes on the crown and I do not get it.

I may have a deep-seated and previously unrealized belief that the Bard meant for his words to come from the mouths of his countrymen, but Washington did not make me believe – I felt like I was watching an actor reciting the playwright’s words. I also felt the same about Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth and much the rest of the players on the stage.

Joel Coen, without brother Ethan this time, gives us the words, exact, from the Bard and the striking black-and-white photography, by Bruno Delbonnel, gives the film a suitably bleak look with moody, often fog-bound sets.

What I am missing with “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is the heart of William Shakespeare’s tale of murder and political intrigue. Instead, I got a faithfully constructed story but one without a soul. This is a problem.

A24 opens "The Tragedy of Macbeth" in theaters on 12/25/21 and on Apple TV+ on 1/14/22.