‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ movie review: A thrilling tale on the corroding effect of unfettered ambition

Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington are riveting in Joel Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy

Joel Coen’s choice of going solo with an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has created a spare, sinewy tale of ambition, murder and guilt, stripped to its bare essentials of delicious iambic pentameter and gorgeous black-and-white frames.

The story follows the play. Macbeth (Denzel Washington), a brave and capable Scottish general, returns triumphant from routing the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. On the battlefield, Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and Macbeth meet three witches (Kathryn Hunter), who hail him as the Thane of Glamis (which he is), the Thane of Cawdor and the king. When King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) bestows on him the title of the fallen Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) wonder if the weird sisters’ prophesy about becoming king might also come true.

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When Duncan stays over at Macbeth’s castle, the two decide to help the prophesy along by committing regicide. Once on the road to hell, Macbeth sees enemies everywhere and resorts to violence to remove them from his path. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, walks in her sleep wondering how much blood an old man has, bemoaning the fact that not all the perfumes of Arabia could out the damned spot from her little hand.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

  • Director: Joel Coen
  • Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Kathryn Hunter, Brendan Gleeson
  • Storyline: An impressionist take on William Shakespeare’s play about a general’s descent into murder and paranoia thanks to his overvaulting ambition
  • Run time: 105 minutes

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s black-and-white frames are in stark contrast to the grey of Macbeth’s mind. Elongated or foreshortened shadows, disorientating reflections, cloaked arches and doorways and veiled silhouettes, all combine to create an unsettling effect.

The acting echoes the minimalist look and feel. Washington captures Macbeth’s unravelling from capable general to paranoid tyrant. McDormand’s depiction of the crumbling of Lady Macbeth’s mind is subtly revealed in her body language and gaze.

For all the tightly-staged brutal battle scenes (the moving of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane is nothing short of miraculous), The Tragedy of Macbeth is a quiet film. Long-time collaborator with the Coen Brothers, composer Carter Burwell, has created a disquieting soundscape dotted with the ominous sound of the tolling bell, interspersed with plaintive violin solos (Tim Fain), the sound of violently flapping wings, the stifled lap of water and the hungry crackle of fire.

When the hurly burly is done and when the battle is lost and won, we have a wonderfully engaging film telling a thrilling tale of the corroding effect of unfettered ambition.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently streaming on Apple TV+

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