The Tragedy of Macbeth: The Best Yet


Along with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth has captured the imaginations of filmmakers for over 100 years. Iconic directors Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and Akira Kurosawa have all tried their hand at adapting this classic play. The story of a Scottish general prophesied to become a king with no heirs has come to define the dramatic tragedy, and has somehow remained relevant 400 years after its writing. As recent as 2015, we had the gorgeously cinematic but dreadfully dull and distant Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender. In 2021, one half of the Coen brothers has given us his interpretation of the Scottish Play, The Tragedy of Macbeth.

The three witches confront Macbeth and Banquo.

As the 15th film adaptation of the play, not counting numerous TV productions, The Tragedy of Macbeth needed to stand out from the rest. It does this in three ways. The first is by focusing on the stage aspect, as it was originally intended. Sets and costumes are minimal, often using mist or darkness to fade out the background in exterior scenes. The architecture of Macbeth’s Castle is square and tall, stark and intimidating. Weapons are obviously theatrical, whether it be a dulled sword or a retractable knife. The second way it stands out is through its close-up directing style. The aspect ratio is a square 1.33:1, and the majority of dialogue scenes push in close on the actors’ faces. They fill the screen, making the whole film much more personal and intimate than a distant stage production could ever be. The third comes from the incredible performances from the actors. Frances McDormand captures the greed and intelligence of  Lady Macbeth perfectly, and Denzel Washington gives us the most passionate and powerful performance of the titular character that I have ever seen. Both keep their American accents as well, which was perhaps the better choice, leaving the actors to focus on more important things than a phony British accent. Other standouts include Corey Hawkins as Macduff, Kathryn Hunter as all three of the witches, and Harry Potter alums Brendan Gleeson and Harry Melling as King Duncan and his son Malcolm. All of these aspects work together (the intimacy of the amazing actors, undistracted by fancy sets) to create an intimate character study, and a powerful realization of a master playwright’s story.

Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand give masterful performances as the leading roles.

There isn’t much to say about the story itself. It’s Macbeth. At this point, most of us have read the play in school, or at least read the Sparknotes version, and most film buffs have taken their pick of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Polanski’s Macbeth as their favorite adaptation. It is a time-honored story that depicts the psychological effects of greed and power in a historical setting impacted by fantasy. The Tragedy of Macbeth remains very faithful to the play, and it succeeds in capturing the story. It is, however, also faithful, for the most part, to the Shakespearean dialogue. Personally, I don’t think that the original dialogue works anymore. There were entire scenes where I had to rely on my previous knowledge of the plot to understand the importance, and several characters’ names were lost on me until the very end. The dialogue is spoken to perfection and directed like a dance, and the film would lose some of its grandeur and class without the poeticism, but because of its archaic complexity, it also lost me.

Like the play, the film builds to an incredible climax. The music finally kicks in full, and Denzel Washington shows us his immense range of wrath and power, as well as a couple of surprisingly intense sword fights. This proves that Joel Coen can direct without his brother. His stylish directing was in full force, and emphasized unique visual trickery, especially with the witches and transitions. By the end, when the King is crowned, I was thoroughly impressed and convinced that indeed it was necessary. This is my favorite adaptation of Macbeth, and is probably the best we’ve had. Kurzel is impersonal, Polanski is dated, Welles had no budget, and as much as I love Kurosawa, Throne of Blood lacks his visual flair and is too over-the-top. The Tragedy of Macbeth is intimate, powerful, and visually stunning. I see Oscars in its future, and they will be well deserved.


The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

dir. – Joel Coen

9/10. Led by passionate performances from Washington and McDormand, Joel Coen’s visual style shines in this powerful adaptation of the Shakespearean play that blends the minimalism of theater and the intimacy of the silver screen.