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Film Review: Visually Lush “The Tragedy of Macbeth” Almost Sacrifices Substance to Style

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 24th, 2021

Film poster: “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Above all else, The Tragedy of Macbeth—Joel Coen’s first solo effort without his longtime collaborator, brother Ethan—is a paean to expressionist filmmaking. Every frame harks back almost a hundred years to the œuvre of someone like the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Indeed, the film owes a profound visual debt to that man’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. In fact, it’s almost too much of an homage, the lighting-exercise aspect of it threatening to overwhelm the pared-down plot of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

Nevertheless, the movie still manages to enmesh the viewer in an intriguing web of eerie mischief, strong performances complementing the evocative compositions to magnificent effect. “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble … For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.” We may have drunk this brew before, but it remains enchanting.

Denzel Washington in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH ©A24

Denzel Washington (The Little Things) stars as Macbeth and Frances McDormand (The French Dispatch) as his Lady. The rest of the ensemble is equally talented, including the likes of Brendan Gleeson (Frankie), Corey Hawkins (In the Heights), Kathryn Hunter (Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Moses Ingram (Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit series), Harry Melling (The Old Guard), and so many others. Nevertheless, the real star is the rich black-and-white cinematography (shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio) of Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour), except when the sharp contrast and Dutch angles become a little too obtrusive. If, in Shakespeare, one is focused on the images at the expense of the text, perhaps something, even if only a little, is lost.

Frances McDormand in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH ©A24

About that text: Coen (whose last film, with Ethan, was the omnibus The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) has done an impressive job reducing the drama to a surprisingly tight 105 minutes. Don’t worry, though, as all the major speeches remain, along with the big beats. Macbeth seizes power by duplicitous (and violent) means, holds on to it by duplicitous (and violent) means, and is overthrown and killed by duplicitous (and violent) means. With his head filled with evil thoughts via a trio of witches (all played, in a clever trompe l’oeil, by Hunter), he is later undone by the same. A prophecy of triumph leads to his doom, and his scheming wife’s, as well. Hubris exacts a heavy price, as it almost always does.

Kathryn Hunter (x3) in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH ©A24

Much of this comes together in magnificent fashion, though with a twist: in the rush to reduce the running time, the weight of the piece somewhat diminishes. Everything is accelerated, from Macbeth’s rash acts to Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness to the gathering of forces that depose the tyrant. Stunning to behold as it may be, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth threatens to unravel into farce in its manic dash to the finish. That it doesn’t is a tribute to the cast, always on point. They may be but pawns in the witches’ game of chess, but lo, how they move so beautifully.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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