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TV/Film Reviews

Film Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ (dir. Joel Coen)

This is visual mastery at play with tremendous acting performances and an eerie sense of spirit that make it quite the cinematic experience to be had.

Joel Coen‘s adaptation of the Shakespeare play The Tragedy of Macbeth starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Kathryn Hunter, Brendon Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Alex Hassell, Stephen Root, and Ralph Ineson hits Apple TV+ on Friday, January 14.

I admit, it’s a shortcoming of my own, that I struggled quite a bit with the Shakespearean language here. Luckily, I remembered the gist of the storyline from having read the play in high school, so I could piece together the plot. Even still, I felt like I was watching a film in Mandarin without subtitles at times.

The visual storytelling makes up for the loss in the vernacular, and you could truly pause this at any time and get a frame-worthy masterpiece. This is visual mastery at play, more than successfully utilizing black-and-white cinematography (with endless amounts of cloudy fog, no less) to its advantage, bathed in shadow play and lighting gymnastics.

Denzel Washington does his Denzel thing here that we all love (you know, great acting), and I was impressed at how his voice really lends itself to this Shakespearean language. He commands the screen. Frances McDormand didn’t need to prove she’s one of the greatest actors of our generation, but this is definitely continuing to prove that along with her versatility and range. Kathryn Hunter’s role(s) are unforgettable, and her voice and body language will leave you haunted.

It’s exciting to see the supporting cast pop up on screen, giving some of Hollywood’s unsung heroes of acting a chance to spread their wings in this unique literary adaptation. Actors like Brendon Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, Alex Hassell, Stephen Root, and Ralph Ineson each bring such a special aura to this.

I’m certainly getting the Coen flair from this, with its sense of whimsy and subtle quirkiness despite its obviously traditional source material. The tone is eerie, and the film takes an off putting stylistic approach. While staying true to the original writing, almost to a fault, I do wonder what this could have been like had it transcended from that a little bit. This is no paint-by-the-numbers Shakespearean remake, which Joel Coen could have easily turned in.

You can’t ignore the marvel that is the casting choices here. Rewriting Shakespeare history by bringing in non-white actors to portray these characters feels important without being the centerpiece of the movie.

The production design is immaculate, modernist, and sculptural, giving beautiful chances for the light to refract and shadows to cast in varying ways. At times, it feels like a tidy stage production set, and at others like a sprawling, never-ending scape. At times like a filmed show onstage, and at others like a movie that was filmed long ago. While we’re isolated inside the walls of the castle for the most part, it never feels limiting.

My only squabble with it is how much it reminded me of my high school lit class, and it definitely felt like homework at times trying to watch this. English teachers around the world, rejoice, your new favorite film is coming. It’s worth the effort, though, because the visual feat and tremendous acting performances make it quite the cinematic experience to be had.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is playing now in select theaters and premieres Friday, January 21 on Apple TV+.

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