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Film Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

5 January 22 words: George White

Joel Coen goes solo for this passion project. But is one Coen as good as two?

Director: Joel Coen
Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell
Running time: 105 minutes

One of the greatest directors of all time taking on one of the most famous tales of all time? The Tragedy of Macbeth seemed like it simply couldn’t go wrong. And, if you’re a fan of Shakespearean storytelling being transferred onto the big screen in the most beautiful, inventive way imaginable, this will prove a resounding, overwhelming success. Yet for those who didn’t quite concentrate enough during English Literature class, this might be one to miss. 

As Denzel Washington’s Lord Macbeth is convinced to commit murder in pursuit of the Scottish crown, supported by his power-hungry wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), the impact of the crime he’s committed weighs heavily on his mind as the grip on his newly-acquired throne slips away, leading to a twisting tale of deceit and death - and plenty of witches, too.

Starting with the witches, Kathryn Hunter deserves endless applause for throwing herself wholeheartedly into her role. Never before has there been such a visceral, strange display of witchhood on the big screen, with Hunter stealing each shot with her contorted physicality and unnerving line delivery. The theatre legend channels director Joel Coen’s vision with remarkable levels of intensity, leaving a lasting impression on the audience. 

Washington and McDormand also demonstrate their phenomenal talents once again, showcasing every layer of their skill with remarkable poise. Both actors command the viewer’s attention, managing to work in tandem and go head-to-head with equal levels of success. It’s fascinating to watch two of the planet’s greatest stars in their prime, doing what they do best.

Coen had a clear idea for The Tragedy of Macbeth, and no one can say he hasn’t brought it to life

Aside from the performances, this is an immaculately well-constructed film on a technical and artistic level. The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is immaculate, ensuring the black-and-white approach is more than just a gimmick, but a useful tool for adding mystery and intrigue, each shade and shadow meticulously crafted to immerse the audience. Coen deserves credit for his work behind the camera, too, making this cinematic production feel like an impressive blend between the best bits of the stage and the screen. 

Where the film may lose some people, though, is in its commitment to using the Shakespearean language of the original story. “It is literally a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, you idiot,” this writer hears you cry. And yes, that may be. Yet there is certainly something bitterly disappointing about having one of the finest screenwriters in the business taking on this tale without being able to inject their own infectious, entertaining dialogue into it. If you, like this guy, aren't fluent in the artistry of sixteenth-century storytelling, much of this will pass you by. 

That said, judging this film for what it set out to be, this is executed to near perfection. Coen had a clear idea for The Tragedy of Macbeth, and no one can say he hasn’t brought it to life. For the right audience, this will be a masterpiece. For the wrong one? Let’s just say it won’t be a piece of cake sitting through it.

Did you know? The whole movie was shot on a soundstage. Everything was built. Except an element of the last shot in the movie, there isn't a single exterior shot.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now showing in cinemas, and will be available on Apple TV+ from 14 January. 

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