The Tragedy of Macbeth – Review


Andrew Eaton, contributor

After leaving Lincoln Center to see Joel Coen’s first solo outing The Tragedy of Macbeth, a multitude of thoughts were swirling around my head concerning his take on the Shakespeare classic. The first and foremost thought was how perfectly tuned the film was to the Bard’s writing. Director Coen elected to keep every line of dialogue from the play intact in his adaptation and frankly this decision can be off-putting if the viewer is a Shakespeare novice (which I am.)

If you are unprepared for the older nuances of the film’s dialect, there is a good chance that The Tragedy of Macbeth could fail to draw you in. Especially due to the fact that The Tragedy has none of the idiosyncratic dark comedy that has defined the career of the Coen Brothers in films such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man. Thankfully, at a certain point, I surrendered to Coen’s accuracy of Shakespeare’s language and the stars aligned for me. 

After this turning point, I grasped how The Tragedy of Macbeth does a great service to the iconic story in far more ways than just the mere repeating of sentences. For starters, the ensemble cast is magnificent. While this should come as a surprise to no one, Denzel Washington gives a startlingly brilliant performance as Macbeth. The actor has always been a master of taking large bombastic emotions and wielding them without ever coming across as cartoonish. This ability makes him perfect as a Shakespeare lead because he can use his character’s melodrama and give it an intense gravitas that lesser actors would make shallow and stale. 

Frances McDormand gives an equally haunting performance as Lady Macbeth, imbuing the Lord’s wife’s descent into madness with a terrifying and manic energy. While the film focuses on Denzel’s Macbeth more than Frances’s lady, McDormand makes up for this with a performance that steals every scene she’s in. 

However the real star of the show is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel who crafts the most stark images I’ve seen in a film released this year. A problem that many stage adaptations today face is that their camerawork always reminds the audience of the fact that you’re watching a play brought to film. They use their confined space in shots that, while maybe not uninspired, don’t feel properly cinematic.

Delbonnel’s work on Macbeth ignores that limited mindset entirely and with Joel Coen creates the best black and white photography in a film since Roma. The contrast of light and shadow is beautifully done and certain imagery in the movie recalls German expressionist cinema of the 1920s as well as cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s poetic frames in Ingmar Bergman’s films.

 The Tragedy of Macbeth is a terrific adaptation that matches Shakespeare’s legendary prose with the immense talent of its iconic cast and crew.