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The Tragedy of Macbeth (Movie Review)

REVIEW OVERVIEW

The Film

SUMMARY

Writer-director Joel Coen gives us an abridged but highly effective retelling of Shakespeare's masterpiece chronicling the rise and fall of a Scottish nobleman driven by his ambitious wife to perform dastardly deeds that puts him on the throne of Scotland only be ousted by a man whose family he has murdered.

Of the nearly 20 film adaptations of one of William Shakespeare’s most popular plays, there is consensus that two previous versions consistently ranked as the best are Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948). So, when writer-director Joel Coen undertook this 2021 remake, he knew he was going up against stiff competition and responded with one of the better efforts of his long and distinguished career.

Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) have just defeated the disloyal Thane of Cawdor. Three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) hail Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor and prophesy that he will become King of Scotland, but Banquo’s descendants will be a future line of kings. King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) names his son Malcolm (Harry Meiling) as his successor to the throne of Scotland and arrives to spend the night at the Macbeth castle. Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) has finally convinced her husband to kill the King and pin the murder on two royal servants. The following morning, Duncan’s dead body is discovered and a fearful Malcolm takes off for England. Macbeth becomes the new King and to ensure the durability of his reign, he arranges to have Banquo and his son Fleance (Lucas Barker) killed. Ross (Alex Hassell) joins the two murderers (Scott Subiono and Brian Thompson) but allows Fleance to escape after Banquo is killed.

During a royal banquet, Macbeth becomes unhinged when he sees Banquo’s spirit. After his wife gives him a sedative, Macbeth receives another visit from the witches who produce visions warning him about MacDuff (Corey Hawkins) but reassuring him that his crown can only be taken by a man “not born of woman” when Birnam Wood moves to his castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth orders the slaying of MacDuff’s entire family, but his men find that MacDuff has already gone to England. Malcolm has raised a large army that cuts branches in Birnam Wood for camouflage and marches toward Dunsinane.  Lady Macbeth has lost her mind and begins to sleepwalk. She dies shortly before Macbeth engages in a fight to the finish with a vengeful Macduff, “ripped untimely from his mother’s womb.” MacDuff eventually beheads Macbeth and rightfully places the crown on Malcolm’s head.

Shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and in a glorious black and white palette, Joel Coen has judiciously excised nearly 40 minutes from Shakespeare’s original play. However, the acts are woven together so seamlessly that I hardly missed the scenes that were omitted as the dramatic tension of this shorter version is maintained at a high level. An excellent cast led by Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington delivers the Bard’s original lines with such clarity that subtitles are not needed. Frances McDormand, Coen’s real-life wife, plays Lady Macbeth with restraint until she becomes genuinely scary when encouraging her husband to commit regicide. Additional kudos go out to Alex Hassell as the scheming Ross, Brendan Gleeson in a brief but regal turn as Duncan and the amazing Kathryn Hunter whose witch performs unbelievable contortions. Although the filming was done on Hollywood sets rather than on Scottish moors, Bruno Delbonnel’s cameras will make viewers believe that they are watching an on-location film complete with barren landscapes, mists, and castles holding large empty spaces that dwarf their inhabitants. Occasional flights of crows appear as bad omens, lending a stylish touch to this ill-fated story. Not surprisingly, The Tragedy of Macbeth received Oscar nominations for cinematography and production design. Composer Carter Burwell, a long-time Coen Brothers collaborator, gives us a haunting score that enhances the impact of the evil deeds that are afoot.  One of the best films I have seen this year, The Tragedy of Macbeth receives a high recommendation and more than holds its own against any of this play’s previous silver screen adaptations.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is streaming now on Apple TV+


  • Rating Certificate: R (for violence)
  • Studios & Distributors: Apple TV+ Studio | A24
  • Country: USA
  • Language: English
  • Run Time: 105 Mins.
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
  • Director: Joel Coen
  • Written By: Joel Coen | William Shakespeare
  • Release Date: 14 January 2022
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Writer-director Joel Coen gives us an abridged but highly effective retelling of Shakespeare's masterpiece chronicling the rise and fall of a Scottish nobleman driven by his ambitious wife to perform dastardly deeds that puts him on the throne of Scotland only be ousted by a man whose family he has murdered. The Tragedy of Macbeth (Movie Review)