Style is half the picture. Story is the other half. William Shakespeare’s 17th-century play, The Tragedie of Macbeth, might be one of the greatest stories ever penned. If not, it’s at least one of the most durable. The desire for power, the ruthlessness of rule, and the all-consuming descent into madness that comes with conspiracy and murder are more than warning signs from a morality tale; they are touchstones in a quest for power applicable to practically any historical period. What story could hold up better to the endless visual possibilities that cinema presents?
Why, then, does The Tragedy of Macbeth feel so distant, so empty in intent? Adapted for the screen and directed by Joel Coen—working without brother Ethan for the first time since their debut in 1984—with Denzel Washington stepping into the boots of the Scottish butcher and Frances McDormand as his fiend-like queen, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a striking movie loaded with a visual audacity that would bowl me over in any other movie but leaves me feeling hollow here.
Filmed in boxy Academy aspect ratio and striking chiaroscuro black and white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a theatrical affair. Characters often enter the frame from the background and then walk toward the camera until they fill the foreground with massive close-ups. The sets surrounding them are both sparse and beautifully detailed but give no indication that a world exists outside the frame. Some even feel weightless, as if they’re floating in space with no tether. The performances are similar, with many actors coming across like rigid automatons—empty vessels for Shakespeare’s magnificent prose. Washington is allowed several vocal flourishes, but it isn’t until his Macbeth has grown fully mad that he loses composure and leans across his throne with a devil-may-care attitude. Up to this point, slouching seems not to exist in all of Scotland.
The scene-stealer of the affair is Kathryn Hunter. She plays all three witches like a hallucination. Hunter twists her body into impossible and unsettling shapes as she delivers Macbeth’s prophecy and fate. Between her and the crows, there’s enough spookiness to push The Tragedy of Macbeth into the horror realms.
This is all by design, no doubt: Clever ways to draw attention to the theatricality of the proceedings. Even Macbeth’s climactic duel with Macduff (Corey Hawkins) carries a comic touch that feels designed to be appreciated more than enjoyed. Funny: The actors here are so fluid with the text, it’s a wonder Coen didn’t go for naturalism instead.
Not that there is anything natural about the versions directed by Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa (1948 and 1957, respectively). Both are top-level adaptations of The Scottish Play. Welles’ Macbeth was made for pennies, so he hid the lack of sets with fog and shadow, rapid cutting, canted angles, and high theatrics. That movie feels like a fever dream. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood takes Shakespeare’s story and incorporates elements of Japanese Noh Theater to make it feel even more ghostly. Kurosawa’s ending makes you believe in spirits—until he pulls back the curtain, that is. Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth has roots in both but lacks the shock of the new and the sense of something wholly different.
I admire The Tragedy of Macbeth, even if it feels like the movie is holding me at arm’s length. That makes it feel like an exercise—which sounds like a terrible damnation of a movie that is so clearly the summation of an artistic expression.
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Written and directed by Joel Coen
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Produced by Joel Coen, Robert Graf, Frances McDormand
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Kathryn Hunter, Moses Ingram
A24, Rated R, Running time 105 minutes, In theaters on Dec. 25, 2021, and on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14, 2022. The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 29, No. 20, “The way to dusty death.“