The Tragedy of Macbeth Movie Review

Written by Henry Tydeman

Released by A24


Directed by Joel Cohen
Written by William Shakespeare and Joel Cohen (screenplay)
2021, 105 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 31st December 2021

Denzel Washington as Macbeth
Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth
Alex Hassell as Ross
Bertie Carvel as Banquo
Brendan Gleeson as Duncan


Macbeth. Romeo and Juliet. Possibly Hamlet. These are the Shakespeare plays that almost everyone knows, or at least knows of. We’re introduced to them at school, and the best known characters and scenes and lines from the speeches are seemingly hardwired into the wider culture. The stories truly have lasted. And since the dawn of cinema directors have adapted Shakespeare’s work for the big screen.

So the question now, four hundred years after the time of Shakespeare and almost a century since his work was put to screen for the first time, is how can directors who want to adapt the plays bring something new to stories that everybody already knows? Baz Luhrmann was successful in this with his Romeo + Juliet in 1996; though not universally popular, no one can deny that it was a remarkably creative piece and, crucially, so very different from what people had come to expect of Shakespeare on screen.

In the case of Romeo + Juliet it was the outrageousness of the style, the Tarantino-era madness and violence that marked it out, but it is memorable in part because it contrasted so completely with the more traditional methods employed by Kenneth Branagh, who directed Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996). The Branagh versions now feel somewhat quaint, but they drag - Hamlet is four hours long - so much so that at times they can be tedious and difficult to watch.

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Jason Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015) isn’t tedious or difficult; it is dark, brooding and bloody. But it is also, on the whole, predictable. The great castles and banqueting halls, the ominous skylines, all of it is as you imagine it would be. And when I first heard that another Macbeth film was in production, set for release just six years after Kurzel’s, I was wary.

But I needn’t have been worried. The world that Joel Cohen painstakingly creates for his new film The Tragedy of Macbeth is so different, so striking, that I suspect for years to come it will be held up as an example of how it is still possible to do wonderfully new things with Shakespeare on screen.

Everything is in a clean, sparse black and white, so clean in fact that you do not think of medieval Scotland. Instead it is truly otherworldly; you do not feel it is in any sense a historical drama, but rather a sort of abstract allegory. It is almost science fiction, or like the plays of Samuel Beckett, where the settings are recognisable and yet somehow not of this Earth. Uncanny valleys, you might call them.

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Cohen’s use of dark shadows throughout is something to behold, as silhouettes speak words that mask the characters’ true intentions. There is an art house feel to it and the fusion of this style with dialogue written in the sixteenth century is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

It goes without saying that the two leads, Denzel Washington (Macbeth) and Frances McDormand (Lady Macbeth), are astoundingly good. They are simply two of the best actors of their generation, and it’s the emotional subtleties that put us in no doubt as to just how ambitious, conflicted, and guilty their characters feel, even when we can’t understand every single phrase that is spoken (inevitably, the Elizabethan dialect is rather unforgiving in places).

Traditionally, both on stage and on screen, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are played by actors in their twenties or thirties. Washington and McDormand are older - 67 and 64 respectively - but this brings something fresh on a thematic level. It’s not, as is usually the case, a story about a hot-headed and impatient lusting after glory, but rather a grim and bitter determination, a ‘last chance saloon’ for a couple who’ve waited decades for their chance. After all, the young do not have a monopoly on ambition.

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In spite of the leads’ brilliance however, the show is perhaps stolen by Kathryn Hunter. As the witch who tells Macbeth and Banquo of their fate, hers is a remarkable physical performance, twisting her arms and legs in such a captivating manner as if by magic. And her voice! Deep and eerie, relishing the famous line: "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble". I cannot imagine it delivered better.

The use of sound throughout the film is thoroughly inventive; a total, quite unnatural silence is used at various points to reinforce that sense of the unwordly. There’s a surreal edge to the depiction of the ‘knocking’ that Macbeth is so troubled by when it seems that the brutish, wooden banging is in fact the sound of blood dripping onto the stone floor. It’s weird, but in the best possible ways, with shades of Lynch and the Bergman masterpieces of the 1950s.

And so Cohen, to my mind, has unquestionably succeeded where other directors haven’t. The Tragedy of Macbeth is, of course, nothing like Romeo + Juliet, but in terms of pushing boundaries and experimenting with Shakepseare on screen, Cohen’s effort is just as bold as Luhrmann’s. The combination of his unique vision with some truly remarkable individual acting performances makes for something very special indeed.


Movie: 4.5 Star Rating Cover

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