tragedy of macbeth film review

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)


(4 stars out of 5)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) Directed by Joel Coen

The film aspires to be more than a deft symbolic concentration of Shakespearean theatricality, perhaps an ambiguous definition of cinematic theater or vice versa, whatever the intricate intentions of director Joel Coen, the preponderant density of both artistic aspects are majestic in broad narrative terms. It is a heady adaptation of the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which to my mind in the profound reverberation of its verses can find implicit meaning as to why Joel Coen set his sights specifically on this phantasmagorical tragedy. It is far from a “Coen” film, even more so considering that it is his first time divorcing the solid collaboration with his brother for many years; one can perceive a considerable distancing in terms of style, but in general and more emphatically in one of the most indispensable aspects of the Coen brothers’ filmmaking: the writing.

Macbeth forces Joel Coen to retreat from his comfort zone, and he has evidently reached a stage of empirical maturity not in formal characteristics or in his marked auteur style but in positioning his gaze on new cinematic attractions. Taking the potent Macbeth-ian allegories and expressionistic dimensions of the drama’s demented despotic nightmare deciphers a minuscule humor I had never thought to find here, and who better than Coen’s dour cynicism to materialize it in a maximalist and eloquent aestheticism. There is something devastatingly morbid at the core of the performances and how determinism directs the prophetic madness into a satisfying vengeance, which within the chaos and terror, Macbeth’s tyrannical personality sings his own death without anyone orchestrating his descent into perdition. In Joel Coen’s hands it echoes tragicomic perhaps, and the theatrical perspectives are adapted to a voluptuous form of nerve-racking asymmetrical shadows that ignite this adaptation with passion and brutality; the best in years (behind only Macbeth(1948) and Throne of Blood(1957)).

It is magnificently grand, yet its grandeur is also imperfect, faithfully structured but with a notorious inexorability from start to finish, there is no visual novelty in how to depict the dark tragedy. The production design shares an intrinsic similarity to the imposing, monstrous and contrastingly beautiful sets of the 1930’s horror films produced by Universal. In short, it is not a vision of worthy originality, yet the chiaroscuro aesthetic is carried out in the hands of tremendous talents who obviously end up conceiving an opulent form that precisely calculates a tour-de-forcé for the eyes. An editing that in a certain way is compartmentalized giving an evocative fragmentation between the insatiable lust for power and the sick lunacy generated by that overdose of ambition.

The deliberate theatrical framing is robust and the angles amplify the poetic eurythmy of the dramatic conflicts, certainly the theatrical stage aspects leave the staging with a catatonic lack of depth, in the compositions the action is central and with little movement; that is a detail that I could not tell if it was ideal, there is definitely a rhythm between the cinematic and the theatrical, which are always enigmatic yet also collide with the clear disparity. However, the timing and especially the pacing of the narrative is just right, and watching such masterful acting is refreshing, with an exhilarating performance by Denzel Washington and a terrifyingly exquisite performance by Kathryn Hunter. And the decision to frame this Shakespearean tragedy in 4:3 confirms to me that even after all these years it is still the best aspect ratio for framing the human body.

Although I sincerely find it a terrible crime that there is anyone on this planet earth who has no idea what this monumental work of Shakespeare is about, I will take the trouble to give a small and modest summary for those people who have never set their eyes on one of the greatest literary works. Macbeth tells a story of crime and punishment laced with witchcraft and supernatural elements. Supported by the deceitful prophecies of the Fateful Sisters, witches or goddesses of destiny, Macbeth decides to assassinate his king and take the crown. Aware of the horror to which he surrenders, he forges his terrible destiny and allows himself to be possessed by the evil born of the lust for power, believing himself invincible and eternal.

There have been so many adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays to film that it is impossible to really number them; in my opinion, I would say that many are portentous failures and others are wonderful adaptations that honor the great playwright that Shakespeare was. In general, I would not like to specify that his works are 100% adaptable to the film medium, mainly because of the theatrical fixation by which these works were written; cinema shares theatrical roots and of course being an art that basically synthesizes many arts in a single voice and expression we could say that capturing a thespian essence is extremely easy on the big screen, however, here lies an obvious problem, if you must transfer the dramatic aesthetics to film it must necessarily cohere with the dynamics of cinema and not with the dramatic art of theater. Therein lies the drastic difference and why many times these productions are gigantic fiascos.

The best adaptations usually understand that the cinematic virtuosity must be the main means to materialize the histrionic poetry, once having that principle as an absolute in the narrative, we can say that we have at least the essential ingredients to orchestrate a competent theatrical cinematography. Macbeth, the shortest tragedy written by the great Shakespeare, is compendious and direct in its form of expression. Consequently, it is also the most adaptable to the cinematic medium, the most homogeneous to conceive an organic storytelling without many inconveniences in the narrative. This new adaptation of the play is ridiculously gorgeous, ostentatious in high measures but ostentatious in measures necessary to capture the mellifluous Shakespearean poetry. It is very likely to be one of the finest and automatically enters my list of best film adaptations of Macbeth, only behind Orson Welles’ delirious 1948 adaptation and Kurosawa’s great Throne of Blood from 1957, although, when it comes to adaptations it is always debatable, some might put Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth first, but in general these are the main ones that come to mind when I think of top-tier Shakespearean cinema.

Joel Coen’s Macbeth is curiously the most meandering in dramatic intentions, it is not linearly entertaining like the others I mentioned nor is it the most ”cinematic” as such, however, it is the most terrifying, it leaves you sputtering in complete terror, but in that enigmatic terror there is an aesthetic grandiloquence worthy of being placed on the walls of a museum. This is definitely the most visually rich adaptation, even if it is not a novelty in its forms, as Orson Welles also gave an expressionistic vision to his film, it is a great exercise in oneiric visuals that penetrate the sense of visual storytelling. Like a sophisticated silent film, The Tragedy of Macbeth formalizes a very challenging cinematic execution that frames stimulating compositions from start to finish. A superb film and synonymous with pleasing aesthetics.

Joel Coen without Ethan Coen leaves me with a feeling of nostalgia, obviously what one most expects from a film with Coen’s name, is powerful writing, scripts that magnetize unforgettable witty stories for many reasons but mainly for their exquisite dialogues. This is a honorable adaptation of the play Macbeth, and as such the dialogue is entirely Shakespearean, let’s just say it’s not necessarily a film ”written” by Joel Coen. However, there is something genuine about the writing, and it’s a quasi-comic depth; it may sound a bit rambling but I sincerely believe Joel Coen chose Macbeth to bring to the big screen for reasons inherent to his writing style. I’m not saying that Joel writes in verse or specifically has that writing personality, I’m more focused on the cynical side of the characters in this tragedy, that detail gives Coen something intrinsic in his filmmaking, and that is the sometimes dry and implied humor as well as the tragicomedy. Fortuitously, one can notice how through the histrionic development of the tragedy, an emotional collision is densified that finally gives an aggressive sarcasm to the story, to the drama in general.

I have always found the play Macbeth fiendishly brilliant because of the great fatalistic sense it has, the disturbing display of man’s corruption has never been so sharp and brilliant as in Macbeth, and mainly the character of Macbeth attracts us with his hypocrisy and his vile tyranny, he is a cynical character par excellence. In Coen’s vision he is a tragic character but beyond his tragedy, his descent is semi-comical because he put himself in that situation; no matter that the fateful witches have prophesied his ascension to the throne through murder, it is still entirely Macbeth‘s fault. In this film he rediscovers those dark aspects of Macbeth‘s personality and how the effects of unlimited power reduce him to a bumbling despotic king. Denzel Washington in his most stentorian performance, his resonance in stagecraft monumentalizes the madness of the character with a flawless expressiveness that connects all the ties of the tragedy and act after act calculates Macbeth‘s mental instability with naturalism.

Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is a methodical chiaroscuro, worked with a painstaking eye to always establish a visual coordination that emphasizes the cinematic rigor of the visuals, very close to being aesthetically painterly, with contrasting lines in shadows drenching the surroundings with a somber atmosphere. The foreboding tragedy is created under that emphasis on aesthetics, evoking a gloomy gothic sensibility akin to a silent film by director Fritz Lang, and certainly in this film the visuals do virtually all the work in terms of theatrical symbology. The key lighting is tight and without fill light to magnify the squarely-viewed dramatics. The aspect ratio aids considerably in the drama of watching a filmed theater, but still maintains a terrific cinematic dynamic, as in the stylized close-ups and in some of the cross-cutting shots that mobilize the staging with monstrous diegetic sounds.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a thrilling spectacle, and leaves you with the great enthusiasm of seeing Shakespeare’s literary richness in the hands of one of the most successful modern filmmakers. Joel Coen with this film shows us that this is his least Coen film, yet it is his most miraculous in formal characteristics.

Matteo Bedon

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When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them. Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.

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