REVIEW: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Kathryn Hunter in Joel Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, now streaming on Apple TV+ — PHOTO: Apple TV+.

Directed by Joel Coen — Screenplay by Joel Coen.

The Coen brothers are obviously one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmaking duos of the late 20th and early 21st Century. I have had the great pleasure of watching and enjoying several of their films, and I think all cinephiles wait eagerly every time one of their projects is announced. The Tragedy of Macbeth is, however, a special entry in their filmography since it is the first solo effort from Joel Coen. Even though his brother did not work on this film, Joel Coen didn’t lose a step. The Tragedy of Macbeth, obviously an adaptation of an oft-adapted Shakespeare play that needs no introduction, is one of the best-looking films of 2021.

I am no stranger to Shakespeare film adaptations. I greatly enjoyed reading Shakespeare in school and at University, I look forward to being able to teach Shakespeare in the future, and I think very highly of several actors’ attempts to breathe life — and new life — into these immortal plays and characters. For example, I often think of Branagh’s delivery of Iago’s most famous monologue in Othello.

Admittedly, there are many other adaptations that you could compare Joel Coen’s attempt to, but the one that I kept being reminded of as I was watching Coen’s black-and-white Shakespeare effort was Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Kurzel and Coens’ approaches are very different. Other than for its intense brutality and dirty realism, I also remember Kurzel’s film for some breathtaking orange shots of battle towards the end of the film.

I’ll admit that I probably prefer Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth performance to Frances McDormand’s (and future rewatches may also reveal that I perhaps prefer Fassbender’s delivery of the titular role), but I quite enjoyed watching McDormand and Denzel Washington in these roles. These are some of the best actors of their generation and they can definitely play these iconic roles well. I think Denzel really captured the brokenness and the ambition of Macbeth. However, I don’t think this adaptation captured much of a connection or chemistry between McDormand and Washington, which I, admittedly, did miss.

Notably, Joel Coen’s film feels much more like a stage play than Kurzel’s film did. Coen’s shadowy black-and-white film that appears to be inspired by German expressionism is awe-inspiring and features some of 2021’s best cinematography. Images of haunting isolation and the nightmarish way the filmmakers and Kathryn Hunter bring the three witches to the screen will probably stick with me for quite some time. At times, her look reminded me of The Seventh Seal.

I think it is fair to say that this primarily feels like an exercise in style and visual design. However, it is a quite successful exercise, in my honest opinion. I think it is a great adaptation of the play, and I think it would be fascinating to do more of a comparative review of the aforementioned adaptations in detail in the future, as both Justin Kurzel and Joel Coen achieved greatness through different stylistic approaches. Coen’s film may have felt much more like a stage play, but it never lost me. I was hooked from the very beginning.

8 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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