Review: On Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ a recommendation in five acts

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the movie "The Tragedy of Macbeth."
(Alison Rosa/Apple TV+)

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I. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”

Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” may have a slightly longer title than past adaptations of the Scottish Play, but the movie itself, at 105 minutes, is actually tighter than most. It’s a few minutes shy of Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” (2015), the most recent major screen adaptation, and more than half an hour shorter than Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, perhaps the maddest and grisliest of the lot. If Coen’s retelling feels exceptionally fleet, it’s because he has slashed away lines and even passages of Shakespeare’s text with his own Macbeth-like ruthlessness; he distills each sequence to its furious essence. Scenes flow into one another with a swiftness and elegance that builds its own momentum. Rarely have these nightmarish events seemed more inevitable.

The visuals are as stripped-down as the words. Coen and his director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel, brilliantly evoke the look of older films with a stark black-and-white palette and a nearly square aspect ratio. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is an astounding piece of movie craftsmanship. It opens in milky white mists, then plunges us into a labyrinth of noir shadows in which every shaft of light seems perfectly placed to emphasize the minimalist arches-and-tiles geometry of Stefan Dechant’s production design. Even the allusions feel economical; Coen distills entire cinematic histories into the frame. The intense chiaroscuro recalls any number of great directors: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, the Orson Welles who made his own “Macbeth” in 1948. An early scene, set in a tent through which we can see the shadows of gnarled branches, seems to evoke Akira Kurosawa’s masterly 1957 retelling, “Throne of Blood.”


And when the actors step forth from these gloomy expressionist shadows, they often plant themselves center-frame and speak directly to the camera — a choice that feels rooted in both an older era of filmmaking and the earlier traditions of the theater. Like so many films Joel Coen has made with his brother, Ethan, this “Macbeth” — his first purely solo outing as writer-director — feels like a master class in multitasking. It is also, of course, the latest Coen picture to center on a man who acts with foolish abandon and becomes trapped in an ever-expanding disaster of his own making. The chilly Scottish moors we see here truly are no country for old men, the setting for one of our most enduring tales of intolerable cruelty.

Denzel Washington in "Tragedy of Macbeth."
(Alison Rosa/Apple TV+)

II. “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

When we first see Macbeth (a superb Denzel Washington), thane of Glamis, he already looks slightly lost. The fog around him is literal and metaphorical; confusion haunts his features. Perhaps he’s still dazed from his latest military triumph alongside his best friend and battle comrade, Banquo (Bertie Carvel). Or perhaps the witches’ prophecy that he’s about to hear, the one foretelling his rise to the throne, has already begun to unmoor him from reality.

When I first heard that Washington was going to play Macbeth — the latest Shakespeare role for this veteran of a Broadway revival of “Julius Caesar” and Kenneth Branagh’s splendid film of “Much Ado About Nothing” — I initially steeled myself for a lot of stentorian bellowing. But until all hell breaks loose in the later acts, Washington underplays beautifully; his Macbeth is a triumph of psychological containment. Early on he’s watchful, stealthy, testing his own resolve, murmuring his lines rather than declaiming them. The tortured words and phrases seem to well up from someplace deep within himself, as if they were being articulated for the first time.

Still, you could mute Macbeth’s every line and see, in Washington’s visage, a great and terrible escalation. There’s a lovely moment early on when Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) awakens to find her husband seated on the bed beside her, and a ghost of a smile plays over his face — one of his few genuine smiles, full of tenderness, affection and even a glimmer of the erotic life these two have shared. It’s an image that will be chillingly echoed a few beats later, when King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson, genuinely regal) stirs and sees Macbeth looming over him, his eyes no longer full of love but rather a cold, lethal sense of purpose.


Frances McDormand in "Tragedy of Macbeth."
(Alison Rosa/Apple TV+)

III. “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown. And put a barren scepter in my grip.”

Washington and McDormand are both in their 60s, which is older casting than usual for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and it adds a poignant dimension to their diabolical scheming. From the start, their murderous plot against Duncan has an air of tragic futility. Macbeth, you sense, has spent the better part of his life being passed over for higher leadership. This is his last stab at greatness, and any such greatness will be short-lived. There is no child to carry on his legacy; that’s always been true of Macbeth, but here it feels like more than just a present-tense misfortune. His heirlessness carries the weight of a lifelong deprivation.

It’s a burden that also drags heavily on his wife, but she casts it bitterly aside as she urges her husband to embrace his destiny while he still can. McDormand played this role onstage in a 2016 Berkeley Rep production, and what makes her such a strangely insidious Lady Macbeth is how skillfully she draws on the qualities we associate with her other, kinder film characters. This Lady Macbeth is fiercely loving and loyal, protective of her husband even (especially) in his moments of weakness, and apt to admonish him in that no-nonsense, commonsensical tone that McDormand nails better than just about any actor. So reasonable does she sound at times that you might just about see the wisdom of her words, if she weren’t methodically plotting a political assassination.

Kathryn Hunter in "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Kathryn Hunter in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” premiering in select theaters Saturday and on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14, 2022.
(Apple TV+)

IV. “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

There’s no shortage of fine performances in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” whose superb ensemble comprises actors from both stage and screen. Carvel makes an outstanding Banquo, his sad, wise eyes seeming to convey the knowledge of his own impending betrayal. The spirited, youthful vitality of Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram as Macduff and Lady Macduff, respectively, positions them in notable counterpoint to their rivals the Macbeths. And I especially liked Alex Hassell as Ross, the sly nobleman-messenger who, in an artfully expanded role, serves as this story’s very busy bearer of bad news. (He also wears one of Mary Zophres’ more evocative costumes, a robe that, simply by the way it dangles and sways, seems to evoke the character’s ever-shifting allegiances.)


But perhaps the finest acting in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — and the most powerful magic — is conjured by the English stage actor Kathryn Hunter as all three Weird Sisters, the old crones who first set this fateful tale of murder in motion. Hunter’s appearances are brief but darkly enthralling: With her hooded face, spooky incantations and contortionist gestures, she really does look and sound as though she’d been plucked from some distant medieval hellscape. Hunter’s performance also calls forth some of Coen’s most inventive staging: Rather than simply showing the witches stirring their brew, the director has them perch in the rafters and loom, bird-like, over Macbeth, peering down as the ground beneath his feet becomes a seething, all-consuming cauldron. It’s a startling representational coup — and scarcely the only moment when this “Tragedy of Macbeth” tilts boldly toward abstraction.

Kathryn Hunter in "The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Kathryn Hunter in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
(Apple TV+)

V. “Horror! Horror! Horror!”

While Coen can stage a murder as frighteningly as any living filmmaker, his monochrome canvas does its part to neutralize some of the horror, and the killing is dispensed with as swiftly as anything else. He doesn’t linger on the carnage; he doesn’t linger on much of anything, which is a testament to this movie’s astounding discipline and the key to some of its limitations.

There are moments when you want to linger, to let this world and all its darkly conjured magic — as well as its lessons on the horrors of tyranny in any era — sink ever deeper into your bones. But instead Coen keeps accelerating, and the drama’s final reckonings — Macbeth’s embrace of his dark fate, Lady Macbeth’s remorseful unraveling — feel less like the tragic operations of fate than the workings of an impeccably tooled machine. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is an immaculate vision: coldly efficient, aesthetically faultless, splendidly acted. I do wish it had a bit more blood in it.

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

Rated: R, for violence

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 25 in general release; available Jan. 14 on Apple TV+