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Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth

January 14, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Denzel Washington doing Shakespeare. That’s the pitch for The Tragedy of Macbeth, which finds the actor returning to the pool of William Shakespeare following his supporting turn in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, to take on the plum leading role of Macbeth.

Washington’s charismatic screen presence has made him one of our most compelling performers over the past few decades, from his Oscar-winning role as a crooked cop in Training Day (“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”) to his delivery of the monologues in his August Wilson adaptation Fences.

These things make him a natural fit for the words of the Bard, especially the soliloquies of the Scottish Play, and the film itself is a unique adaptation that places the performances front and centre. Directed by Joel Coen (working solo for the first time without his brother Ethan), The Tragedy of Macbeth is perched somewhere between cinema and theatre, with the film having been shot entirely on sound stages on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California.

The sparse, minimalistic sets, with their imposingly high walls and foreboding passageways, aren’t supposed to capture the look of 16th century Scotland, but rather provide an impressionistic backdrop for the performances. The end result feels like something between a movie and a filmed version of a stage play, captured by Bruno Delbonnel’s striking black-and-white cinematography. Delbonnel frames everything in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, allowing the actors to come into the centre of the frame for vivid closeups.

Coen’s directorial choices allow the performers to remain at the forefront of his film, as they would on stage. There are ways this role could be overplayed, but Washington imbues his portrayal of Macbeth with a simmering rage and a fierceness to his line deliveries, despite barely raising his voice. Frances McDormand breathes new life into the role of his ambitious wife Lady Macbeth, delivering an older variation on the character who has been unable to give her husband an heir, with an “out damn spot” sleepwalking monologue that is one for the ages.

The cast is rounded out by Brendan Gleeson as King Duncan, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, and, in a stroke of casting genius, British theatre actress Kathryn Hunter as all three of the witches. Hunter’s introduction comes with the camera swooping down on her curled up like a rock, her double-jointed limbs unfurling from behind her. It’s an incredibly physical performance that has the power of being both mesmerizing and genuinely unnerving, and is absolutely captivating to watch.

I’ve watched the film twice now (the first time in IMAX at one of the free Shakespeare at the Cinema event screenings and the second time streaming on my 4K TV), and both times found it to be a unique viewing experience. The film almost defiantly exists as more of an artistic achievement than mainstream entertainment, but serves as an undeniably impressive feat of directing, acting, cinematography and production design.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+.

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