‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Review — Joel Coen’s Expressionist Shakespeare

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The Tragedy of Macbeth Review

When it was announced that Joel Coen would be directing an adaptation of Macbeth without his longtime collaborator and brother Ethan Coen, there was a bit of shock in the film world. It’s as if we took these sibling collaborators for granted, assuming that they’d work side-by-side forever. As a longtime admirer of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some apprehension about Joel stepping out on his own. But now having seen Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, I realize my concerns were misguided. After all, half of a great filmmaking duo is still going to be better than most movies made anyway. But what Joel Coen has delivered with The Tragedy of Macbeth is a meticulously crafted, visually stunning, and well-acted Shakespeare adaptation. Even if, like me, you have trouble connecting to the language of Shakespeare and the rhythm of his dialogue, there’s still plenty to wrap you up into this world of madness, murder, and a lust for power.

Three witches (each played by Kathryn Hunter) greet Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and present a prophecy that he will take over as the King of Scotland. When pieces of the witches’ prophecy become true, Lord Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) plot to murder King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in the dead of night as he sleeps in their castle. Upon completion of the murder, Lord and Lady Macbeth frame two of the king’s servants, though Duncan’s son Malcom (Henry Melling) and Macduff (Corey Hawkins) have their suspicions. Heavy is the burden of the crown as Macbeth and his wife slowly descend into madness, paranoia driving them towards a state of violent tyrannical rule. All of these forces will culminate in a conclusion fitting for a story entitled The Tragedy of Macbeth.

It should come as no surprise that both Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are absolutely fabulous in their respective roles. Denzel brings his trademark intensity to the role of a murderer-turned-king, and he delivers his lines in the perfect iambic pentameter of the Bard’s original play. As each Lord and Lady Macbeth succumb to their inner demons, the two stars shine brightest as the seams of their characters and their grip on reality begins to fray and tear. The supporting cast also delivers solid work, including Alex Hassell as Ross and Bertie Carvel as Banquo. Even the great Stephen Root appears for a wonderfully straggly performance in his lone scene. From top to bottom of the cast list, everyone delivers A-grade work for director Joel Coen.

But I still find it hard to connect the flourishes and quirks of Shakespearean language, and sometimes the rhythmic meter of the dialogue makes it hard to fully absorb. Part of me wishes the film was subtitled just so I could better follow the dialogue. That all being said, I was never bored or confused during The Tragedy of Macbeth. Most importantly, I was entirely mesmerized by the stunning visuals of Joel Coen’s brilliant direction and the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel. The Tragedy of Macbeth looks like a German Expressionist silent film. The shadows are stark. There’s no shortage of close-ups on the actors. The sets are sparsely decorated yet meticulously crafted. My big takeaway from the visual style of the film is that Joel Coen was trying to channel the brilliance of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodore Dryer.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is the best-looking film of the year. It’s a vivid cinematic experience that stuns from start to finish with its unique visual style. Joel Coen has made a truly magnificent Shakespeare adaptation that stays true to the source material while expanding the diversity of the cast. If this is the start of Joel Coen’s solo filmmaking career, it’s a great opening salvo as it’s just amazing to look out for just under two hours. But it’s also hard to get a true read on what this means for Joel Coen as a writer, as here he’s adapting the most famous writer in all of human history. Whatever the future holds for Joel Coen as a writer-director, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a sign that one of the best living filmmakers in the world isn’t going to slow down or lose his artistic touch.

Overall Score
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth


For his first solo directorial effort, Joel Coen adapts Shakespeare with The Tragedy of Macbeth, a visually stunning film that evokes shadows of German Expressionism while also boasting two stellar lead performances by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.

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