Movie Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

Plot: Based on the famous play from William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth chronicles the rise and fall of Macbeth (Denzel Washington). After three Witches (Kathryn Hunter) predict that he will be King of Scotland, Macbeth plots with his ambitious wife (Frances McDormand) to make it so. Yet the crown carries a heavy price, as the crushing guilt of Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and Macbeth’s best friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel) begin to undo him.

Review: Shakespeare film adaptations are a tricky thing. Foundationally, William Shakespeare’s works are plays and as such, are meant to be performed on stage. That doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t work. Orson Welles’ 1948 film Macbeth is an excellent adaptation as is Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. However, you also have trash fires like the 2006 Australian version of Macbeth starring Sam Worthington or 2014’s Cymbeline starring Ethan Hawke. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.

So, when I heard yet another adaptation of Macbeth was in the works, I was significantly non-plussed. However, upon further research, I discovered that The Tragedy of Macbeth had three things going for it that piqued my interest: it was being produced by A24, it had a stunning cast, and it was being directed by Joel Cohen in a rare solo effort. These three ingredients led me to believe that I was in store for something different and unexpected. After over a dozen adaptations of the same play in the last 120 years, you need to do something unique to stand out.

Thankfully, Joel Cohen and company emphatically accomplish this feat. Stark, moody, magnificently shot, and finely acted, The Tragedy of Macbeth proves to be one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of all time. Shot entirely in black and white and completely filmed on sound stages, TTOM has an otherworldly quality about it that makes it seem as if it is disconnected from reality. It’s an interesting approach that visually sets it apart from say Roman Polanski or Justin Kurzel’s adaptations which were shot on location in Great Britain. Indeed, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels much more akin to a German art film with shades of Fritz Lang peppered throughout. This is in no small part due to Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography whose shots and scale are used for maximum disorienting effect. I particularly loved the scene where the Witches are first introduced and how their shadows reflect on standing water. Delbonnel’s been nominated five times for Oscars and TTOM is sure to net him a sixth. In fact, he’s probably the odds-on favorite to win, his work is that good.

What I appreciated about Cohen’s direction here is how he goes for a minimalist perspective. Gone is the opulence or battle scenes of previous adaptations. Instead, everything is barebones and stripped down. Castle hallways, throne rooms, and dining halls are all vast and immense, stark to the point of severe. This reflects how Macbeth’s ambitions and his ultimate ascent to power are hollow and meaningless. Stripping Shakespeare’s Macbeth of any ostentation focuses the viewer on the themes of the story rather than spectacle.

As Konstantin Stanislavski once said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Joel Cohen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth embodies that sentiment to a T as the supporting case shines throughout. Bertie Carvel makes for a stalwart and honorable Banquo while Brendan Gleeson proves once again, he is one of the best character actors working today, with a reserved but intense turn as King Duncan. Kathryn Hunter’s portrayal of the Witches comes off as one of the creepiest screen performances I’ve seen in a while. Although she portrays all three witches, each has a unique aspect to them, and it is ambiguous (probably by design) if they are three separate entities or three aspects of one witch’s psyche. Brilliant. Meanwhile, Stephen Root almost steals the movie with a hilarious five-minute scene as the Porter that added some much-needed levity.  However, Corey Hawkins stands out among the supporting players with his phenomenal performance as Macduff. An honorable and righteous man, the scene where he discovers his wife and family have been murdered at the hands of Macbeth’s forces is nothing less than gut-wrenching. It makes his moment of revenge against Macbeth that much more satisfying. That Hawkins can go from Straight Out of Compton, to In the Heights, to The Tragedy of Macbeth so seamlessly, demonstrates an uncanny and phenomenal talent.

As spectacular as the supporting cast is in The Tragedy of Macbeth, the crux of the film relies on the performances of its two leads – Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington. In fact, their performances are so equally compelling it reminds me of the Two-Hander films we used to get in the 80s and 90s. McDormand slips into the role of Lady Macbeth like an old glove. Lady Macbeth’s ambitious, grasping lust for power bursts through with every word of dialogue McDormand utters. She’s everything Lady Macbeth should be – cajoling, supportive, manipulative, shrill, and desperate. Her descent into madness and her sleepwalking scene are nothing short of harrowing.

As for Denzel Washington? Well, I mean, it’s Denzel freakin’ Washington. Aside from maybe a Teletubby, I doubt there’s a single role he can’t succeed at. (Even the Teletubby I’m not so sure on.) While it takes a moment to accept Washington as Macbeth, within minutes you completely buy him as the cursed Scot. Shakespeare’s words roll off his tongue like an exquisite wine as you see him ascend to the throne, be corrupted by power, and ultimately succumb to fate. There’s a sense of melancholy that pervades his entire performance and it works well. While you despise the things he does to attain power, the fact that Macbeth’s death evokes sadness and sympathy exemplifies the tragic nature of the play and is a resounding endorsement of Washington’s performance. Just as Delbonnel is sure to receive another Oscar nomination, so too will Washington.

While The Tragedy of Macbeth might not be everyone’s cup of mead, from a cinematic standpoint there’s a ton to appreciate here. If you’re a fan of the bard, Cohen’s film will be a welcome treat. And if you’re not, there’s still much to be admired.

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

The Tragedy of Macbeth: 9/10