Denzel Washington gives a thunderous performance in Joel Coen’s stamp on Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
This review of the Apple TV+ film The Tragedy of Macbeth does not contain spoilers.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is Joel Coen’s rumspringa from his brother, Ethan. I mean, if you’re going to replace blood, it might as well be with William Shakespeare. A chance for him to go out on his own in the Hollywood world and see if he enjoys the art of filmmaking solo or come home. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for. That would be easier if he had a misstep. Suppose he made a bad film that lacked the Coen sensibilities of ruthless plot points, zany characters, unique dialogue, all found in movies consistently hard to classify. They created the most eclectic filmography in the history of La La Land. But here, the show must go on.
Denzel Washington stars as the man with the bruised ego, Macbeth. It’s a thunderous performance as very few people are suited to play the man. For those who don’t know, I’ll give you a quick summary. Macbeth was approached by the witches (played by a very effective first woman ever to play King Lear professionally, Kathryn Hunter) to become the King of Scotland. The problem is Scotland already has one, King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) thinks it’s a fantastic idea because she needs a new title as Queen. Of course, this starts a civil war among others, including the man who questions the King’s demise, MacDuff (Corey Hawkins), Duncan’s son, Malcolm, and Ross (Cowboy Bepop’s Alex Hassell).
Coen honored Shakespeare’s words by keeping the dialogue accurate to the steeped times in rhetoric, metaphors, and stuck in eternal verse (he even gives William Shakespeare a writing credit). I’m not sure how many filmgoers, even serious cinephiles, are in love with Shakespeare adaptations, but Coen did not modernize or adjust it in any way. Many may not have any clue what the hell Macbeth and the rest of his sidekicks are talking about, but if you don’t, you will begin to get the gist.
Where Coen’s take on Macbeth excels is creating a stunning, visual feast for the viewer. Films are a visual medium, after all. He establishes a palette of blacks and whites, with stunning minimalist shots that become a strangely pleasant marrying of film and theatre. It enhances the film’s moody tone that makes the source material so revered. Credit to Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour), the film’s cinematographer, who captures the script’s paranoia. With this and his work on The French Dispatch, he is having quite a year.
Most likely, your preference for The Tragedy of Macbeth is going to be contingent on your love of William Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with that not being your cup of tea. And many may not get past the film’s first act. That’s because Joel Coen does not reinvent the wheel, simply because he doesn’t have to. But as the film progresses, he puts a stamp on Macbeth that is all his own.