‘The Tragedy of MacBeth” is written and directed by Joel Coen, one half of the Coen Brothers (directors of “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit” 2010), based on the iconic play by William Shakespeare. This version of the story stars Denzel Washington as the titular Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife (played by Frances McDormand), Macbeth murders his king to take the throne for himself.
I’ll be upfront in saying that I have no prior relationship with the Shakespearean story of MacBeth. Unlike probably most people in the world, none of my English classes in school ever assigned the play for us to read nor have I seen any of the previous adaptations before. Obviously I’ve heard of the play before because, come on, who hasn’t? But I didn’t know much or anything about what it was really about.
I’m also not a huge fan of Shakespeare dialogue and unfortunately for me this adaptation seems to really embrace it head on. There are some Shakespeare adaptations that still use this Old English dialogue that works for me, but in this instance it didn’t. It’s a lot of “wait what did he just say?” and “what are they even talking about?” for me and unfortunately my brain doesn’t work the way it needs to to keep up with everything going on so I’m just left confused, especially for the first act as I was starting to understand more as it went along.
That being said, for those that are fans of Shakespeare or at least know what the MacBeth is about, there is a ton to love here especially on a technical standpoint.
Joel Coen, in the first movie he’s made completely without his brother Ethan, crafts quite the spectacle that even when I don’t understand what’s going on, I’m still in awe at what I’m seeing on screen. Everything from the cinematography to the production design to, and especially to, the performances is so on point that it almost all makes up for my own lack of understanding.
It’s hard press to find a performance from Denzel Washington that isn’t top-notch and the nine time Oscar nominee delivers another incredible performance here. I can’t really speak on how he changes up the character compared to other version because, as I’ve said, I don’t have that knowledge of it, but he definitely delivers a performance that’s both powerful and sensitive at the same time.
The rest of the cast is incredible, but no one, not even Washington, quite does it like Kathryn Hunter (Mrs. Arabella Figg from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) who is a complete standout and scene stealer. Hunter plays both the witches and the Old Man and she does each one flawlessly. She’s not in many scenes compared to a lot of the characters on screen, but she is far more memorable than anyone else in the cast. Her performance of the Witches is so haunting and captivating which is just only even more elevated by Coen’s vision.
The production design is probably the best technical aspect of the film in my opinion. Production designer Stefan Dechant (“Kong Skull Island”) takes such a simplistic approach to the sets on display that really helps capture not only Coen’s vision, but Shakespeare’s as well. It’s equal parts minimal as it is massive with an impeccable attention to detail in a genius combination that only only benefits the story as a whole, but the shadowy, black-in-white cinematography as well.
The cinematography is downright stunning and adds to the haunting nature of the story at hand. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “Darkest Hour”) definitely deserves all the praise in the world for just how beautiful this movie is. Joel Coen definitely took the right approach to tell his version of MacBeth in black-and-white because he fully makes it his own and Delbonnel makes what could’ve been an insanely boring movie for someone with no previous MacBeth experience like me into something visually captivating and beautiful.
While I may have been left empty from a storytelling standpoint due to my own lack of understanding of the source material, I can’t deny how masterful of a craft this movie is from every single technical standpoint. I can definitely see MacBeth and Shakespeare fans falling head-over-heels for Coen’s vision and maybe over time if I ever get more knowledge of the story, I can revisit this and will too. “The Tragedy of MacBeth” is currently streaming on AppleTV+.
Jordan Wooodson can be reached at email@example.com