Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth screenshot

Year: 2021 | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As someone who has always been less fond of the Coen Brothers‘ films than most of my cinephile comrades, I went into The Tragedy of Macbeth with tempered expectations, even with the glowing praise that has been heaped onto it since its premiere at the New York Film Festival in September 2021. Well, I must say that those expectations have absolutely been blown out of the water. This film is easily one of the crowning achievements in film in 2021.

Having never been exposed to much Shakespeare, I must admit that much of the language of the script (which I imagine is lifted directly from the play) is absolutely baffling to me, and had I not been watching this film with subtitles, I very well may have been lost completely. But none of that matters when what is being portrayed on the screen is so viscerally arresting and spell-binding.

The hype surrounding Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is very real. This is perhaps the finest crafted black-and-white film in the color era, with each frame composed so masterfully that it’s nearly impossible to pull any out as exceptional examples. The lighting is positively sublime, with chiaroscuro used in a way that would make Orson Welles envious, at times painting an expressionist portrait quite reminiscent of the great The Night of the Hunter and the silent German films that influenced it. I’ve never seen a modern black-and-white film that feels so much like a product of a by-gone era as The Tragedy of Macbeth does. But the visual tone of the film isn’t just based on cinematography; it’s also one of the best edited films of the year, with some of the most stunning match cuts I’ve ever seen employed in film. Add to that Carter Burwell’s haunting score that sits just below the surface for almost the entire film, and there are visceral moments throughout that literally left me slack-jawed.

And then there’s Denzel Washington, who gives perhaps the best performance of his long and distinguished career. He is surrounded by a capable supporting cast, of course, but it’s Washington who dominates every single frame that he’s in, delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue with a grace, intensity and confidence that is frankly unmatched by anybody else in the film. This was a role that he was seemingly born to play, and his nomination for Best Actor was well-deserved. As an aside, long-time Coen collaborator Stephen Root absolutely nails his small comic relief role, and I think that I could listen to him rattle off complex Olde English dialogue all day.

All in all, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a bold adaptation of an age-old story that somehow feels both timeless and innovative at the same time. As someone who is neither typically a fan of the Coens nor at all familiar with Shakespeare, I was captivated from beginning to end and was left wanting more after the credits began to roll. This is easily one of the best films of 2021, and as such, one of the best films of the young decade so far.

Language: English
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 1 hr. 45 min.
Rating: R

Director: Joel Coen
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter

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