“The Tragedy of Macbeth”: A Crisp, Abstract and Restrained Tale of Power


Source: Plugged In

Will Teare

Director: Joel Coen

Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, with Brendan Gleeson and Henry Melling

Release Date: Dec 25, 2021

Rating: 4/5

William Shakspeare’s Macbeth has always been a favorite of mine. I love the story of a man rising to power only to fall and ultimately fail. It’s a tale of power and prophecy, with a nice mix of betrayal and supernatural to spice up the story. Although not the greatest adaptation of the Scottish Play, it certainly justifies its place as a new telling of the classic tale. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth is quite different from the usual Coen fare. Joel Coen trades in his co-director, co-writer, +30 year collaborator, and brother for the Bard himself. Although that certainly removes the iconic Coenian nature from the picture, a tragedy is their bread and butter. Joel does a great job at making The Tragedy of Macbeth visually interesting. Visually interesting is maybe a little too small of a descriptor for the movie. Bruno Delbonnel’s camera is god-like. The shots are static, but Debonnel fills the frame with gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot. People fade in and out of the fog as they traverse the Scottish highlands with stunning brutalist castles in the back (between this and Dune, this is a great year for brutalist architecture) and a foreground that is equally vacant and abstract as it is beautiful. 

Hallways are adorned with little of the usual period film-type set design. There are no tapestries or candles, only the barest of necessities needed to tell the story but adds this abstract, even minimalist view. There was never a part of the film that seemed like it was filmed anywhere else but a LA soundstage and nowhere near Glamis or Cawdor. Now, this isn’t a jab at Mr. Coen and the visual team; in fact, this adds so much more. The set design team gives castles this harsh geometry to give them this crisp look. Due to it being on a soundstage and you can place and control light in any way you want, Coen demonstrates an unbelievable level of control over light and dark. He knows exactly where the light will be placed and how it will bounce off any surface. 

The visual look is undeniably beautiful and genuinely impressive work. However, it’s the performances that are up for debate. Allow me to preface this by saying that there isn’t a single bad performance here. Most cast members are classically trained Juilliard alumni who can command Shakespearan speech like it’s their first language. All of these actors are fully aware of what they’re doing. It’s more the direction they all have I take a slight issue with. These performers are a little too restrained. Take, for instance, the scene in which Ross alerts Macduff with, “Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes / Savagely slaughter’d.” Now, Malcolm follows this up, telling Macduff to not hide his grief. I’ve seen actors take that and let loose the rage that Macduff rightfully feels, and I’ve seen the opposite, but this is much quieter. Sure, Corey Hawkins does well up with tears a little bit and goes through the motions, but he seems much too controlled. I want to see Macduff struggle to control this insurmountable amount of pain and anger in a single tear and struggle to hold back some sort of primal scream. As an actor attempting Macduff, this scene is where you can really show off. But no, just some eyes welling up and some good ol’ line readings. It clearly isn’t Hawkins’ fault. This direction goes across the board. 

Let’s look at our two leads, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand). Denzel Washington commands the same screen presences he’s brought since…well, forever. This is Denzel Washington we’re talking about here; he’s no spring chicken to acting and Shakspeare, for that matter. But here, I never really felt how bloodthirsty he becomes. I wanted to feel this epic downfall and for Denzel to really go for it, but it once again felt restrained. Lady Macbeth is like THE craziest role you can have. You can just let loose and go insane for 5 acts and have some fun. McDormand just goes for this certainly troubled but glassy-eyed Lady Macbeth. All the beats of the couple were shown and played out thoroughly, but not nearly enough. I wanted to see how genuinely bloodthirsty this couple is and just really let these two go to town, but none of that was shown. Then again, this is Shakespeare; everything is up in the air and fair game for interpretation. Although I didn’t fully appreciate the direction Macbeth was put on in 1606, something had to change every once in a while. 

If we want to get into the best performance in this movie, let’s talk about Kathryn Hunter as the witches. I was a massive fan of how they handled them. Rather than getting three performers, they went for this sort of split personality type deal. Not only that, Hunter was able to contort and twist her body and pull it all off with menace and skill. We got to see the other two as shapes alongside her or reflections in a pool of water. Huge fan of what they did with her. 

Ok, one of my guilty pleasures when thinking/talking about movies, awards is to run through the categories this movie could be nominated for. Although I’d be pretty happy with a nomination for Best Supporting for Kathryn Hunter, I really don’t see it happening (fingers crossed, though). Best Adapted Screenplay? A contender for a nomination, but we’d have to see. Production Design? Deserved nomination but not guaranteed. Best Actor? Most likely, it hasn’t been a really stellar best actor race. Best Director? Tough, but no, still a chance, but no. Best Picture? No, but we shall see. Best cinematography? In most other years, it wins, but with Belfast being black and white and Dune just existing, I don’t think it has a chance at the win. A nomination 1000%, but the gold isn’t going there.

This movie is a solid adaptation that clearly changes the usual modern Shakespeare adaptation when all is said and done. The casting is wonderfully diverse. It’s shot on black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, shot beautifully and altogether fully realized. Although I may have misgivings about the direction, it’s new, consistent, and undoubtedly intentional. We may miss Ethan, but I have nothing but total confidence in Joel Coen’s abilities, and I wish him the best of luck in the upcoming awards season and his solo career.