Movie Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Now in limited theatrical release before its debut on Apple TV+ January 14, 2022.

Full of sound and fury, black and white cinematography, German expressionist noir stylings and vampy costumes, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (C) still manages to be frustratingly austere and beguiling in its lack of a central pulse. The ingredients are all there, including Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand as his partner in crime, but the film just sits there like a pretty portrait frame not sure what to do with the space within its confines. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife (McDormand), Washington’s Macbeth murders the king and takes the Scottish throne for himself but is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. I’m not sure this has ever been said about a Shakespeare adaptation, but it should have been longer; the lean “highlights reel” storytelling somehow shortchanges character arcs. Plus the intentionally cramped sets fail to feel like walls closing in but rather convey a limited expanse and low stakes, like everything was filmed on the tiniest artful sound stage. There were two times I almost believed it was actually taking place in Scotland; perhaps it was just supposed to be Coen’s fevered dreamscape. Both Washington and McDormand are done very few favors by their director; what could have been career-best work from master thespians is merely perfunctory. Washington plays the role very weary, although he eeks out enough effective line readings for an Oscar reel. McDormand doesn’t really register here. Truly “out, damned spot” is blink and you’ll miss it. Only Kathryn Hunter as the Witches, Corey Hawkins as Macduff and Alex Hassell as Ross get to shine in supporting parts; the less said about Harry Melling as Malcolm, the better. This adaptation, while it has some lovely and imaginative shots, simply reminds viewers to check out more engaging adaptations by Roman Polanski in 1971 and Justin Kurzel in 2015.

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