Film Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth is a razor-sharp adaptation of the famous Scottish play

The Tragedy of Macbeth is the latest film from Joel Coen of the Coen Brothers; best known for their works that are singular in vision, unique in meshing genres and humorous in their own idiosyncrasies. For his latest film, he is working solo for what is the umpteenth adaptation of the titular Shakespearean play.

Many filmmakers have applied their own touches to this Shakespearean play to brilliant effect. Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, Justin Kurzel and others have all worked on the Scottish play alone; not to mention many other filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann and Julie Traymor adapting other plays. With an embarrassment of riches in talent in front of and behind the camera, can Coen make his iteration stand out of the pack?

For those who do not know the story, The Tragedy of Macbeth follows the titular character (played by Denzel Washington), a high-ranking Scottish general who serendipitously runs into a trio of witches (played by the wonderfully dexterous Kathryn Hunter). They are in awe of Macbeth’s presence and prophesize that he will become the King of Scotland. Now at an advanced age, he is consumed by ambition, thinking of what life would be like if he were to become king. Through provocation by his wife (Frances McDormand), he springs into action, leading the two into the path of darkness, madness and death.

All that talent alone guarantees a stellar and professional film in itself. However, as an adaptation of the Shakespearean play, this offering from Coen provides more than enough identifiable fingerprints to provide a singular work. One of the reasons why it stands out is its approach to the pacing of the play. By truncating out the warfare portion of the source material, Coen and his crew manage to focus more on mood and atmosphere.

The use of sound stages, the musical score by Carter Burwell and monochrome cinematography (by Bruno DelBonnel) are amazingly sparse as they lend an eerily claustrophobic feel that makes the mindsets of the characters feel palpable. This approach makes the iconic soliloquies become more powerful and smoother to adapt to as it feels organic and not abrupt when characters shift from speaking to pondering.

Coen also brings a stronger focus on the witches and the supernatural component of the play; making some genuinely haunting sequences that linger on the minds of the audience as well as Macbeth himself. The pacing feels a lot more exhilarating as it gets straight to the point with little need to introduce the characters. But funnily enough, it is not because Coen assumes that audiences are fully familiar with the source material as the film makes changes with the characters themselves.

Another reason why the film stands out is how it addresses the age of the characters. In many adaptations of the play (as well as the source material itself), the age of the characters ranges from late twenties to late thirties; which makes it explicit that Macbeth’s rise to power occurs due to youthful ambition. In the case of The Tragedy of Macbeth, the leads are of an advanced age and it informs the characterizations in interesting ways.

There are shadows of regret, world-weariness and final hurrahs that loom over the leads provide a refreshing shift that gives the actors more to do. Instead of being driven to glory through angst and youthful exuberance, our leads are given a sense of self-righteousness; feeling that they are owed for what they have done in their lifetimes. The actors all lend their A-game in bringing the characters to life; particularly Washington with his inner furore and McDormand with her surprisingly stoic and empathetic turn.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is another fantastic entry in the world of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations. This version has the taut storytelling, the claustrophobic feel and the refreshing characterisations that lend the tale a sharp and concise focus that is reminiscent of the dagger itself. It allures however you see it, it cuts however you slice it and it lingers on your mind however you imagine it. Highly recommended.

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

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.