Saturday, September 25, 2021

Sound and Fury

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Coen the-tragedy-of-macbeth-film With The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the solo outing of Joel Coen as a director, one half of the brothers team behind such classics as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. It stars indomitable Denzel Washington as the ambitious, murderous Scotsman and the great Frances McDormand (also the director's wife) as the Lady M. With a great ensemble of the British, Scottish, Irish and American actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel and Kathryn Hunter, I have to say, acting in this is fantastic.

But there have been many famous screen adaptations of the Shakespeare’s play before this reiteration. So the first question anyone would naturally ask is, is another adaptation of the famous Scottish play really necessary? Most recently we had a sexy, action packed version directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cortillard that no one saw.

Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return after victorious battle over invading Norwegian forces, then encounters witches (?) in the forms of crows. They instill the ideas in the returning warriors that Macbeth will be king and Banquo's offspring will take over down the line. The rest of the film is predicated on that foretelling and Macbeth acting upon it. From the get-go, Lady Macbeth is all over the idea of killing off King Duncan (Gleeson). But after the deed is done and Macbeth assumes the throne, they get increasingly paranoid with guilt, with imaginary approaching heavy steps and bloodstains that never washes away. Sleep no more. Macbeth can never rest easily.

There is nothing wrong with Washington and McDomand's acting, eschewing the bard's juicy monologues with gusto and ease. His greying hair and beard and her wrinkles give their performances more edge, accentuating the aging couple's desperate last shot at glory. But it's Kathryn Hunter who steals the show. She portrays the manifestation of three witches. Her contortionist body movement and cadence of her gravelly voice in the beginning sets the uneasy tone of the whole film.

Shot in black and white in academy ratio, it is closer to filmed stage play than a cinematic adaptation. Its German expressionism inspired, minimalist set design and CGI fog and a murder of crows come across as cheap. And digital cinematography (nonetheless shot by usually great DP Bruno Delbonnel) looks extremely flat and surprisingly uninspired.

Unfortunately, there is nothing special about Coen's directing: there are no battle scenes, the weird vibe has been done much better both in Polanski's and Welles's version as well as in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. It's as if Coen couldn't decide what direction he wanted to go and took the most boring, lazy route. The result is boring, flat adaptation with hodge-podge styles from other classic period pieces, as if Macbeth the film is wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Even any semblance of Coen-ness is only briefly found in the appearance of Stephen Root, a character actor and frequent collaborator of the brothers as Porter, a comic relief.

At best, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a vanity project where a director trying to please his wife a role she always wanted to play (for 15 years apparently). It also gives a clue to which Coen might be a Garfunkel of the duo.


  1. Hey buddy, great review you've got here. I have to say that it feels like you haven't even read the original, considering how you seem confused by the presence of the witches/crows (it is quite unclear what your (?) is referring to). In fact, that whole paragraph comes across as completely jarring coming from a supposedly reputable film critic who should have at least some grasp of the original material. I'm almost convinced this was written by two completely different people, considering it took you the length of a paragraph to flip from calling the acting fantastic to saying that there is just nothing wrong with it. To be frank, it feels as though you were more concerned with cramming as many random, obscure words in as possible, whether or not they belong or even make sense in the context they are used.
    On a positive note, I appreciate your acknowledgement of the far-superior Kurosawa film, so at least it's not all bad.

  2. John,
    Yes it’s been a while I read the play, more than 30 yrs ago in college. But the question mark was for one actor playing 3 witches/crows. I always remember there were three? But that’s not even my criticism.
    This is not the first time I’m getting hate for this review. It seems it struck a core to many fans of the invincible Coens. My gripe is this: there’s nothing remotely interesting about this adaptation cinematically which is explained in the second to last paragraph of this review. Actingis adequate for the A list actors, but not mind-blowing. More than anything, I am very disappointed with the film and thus question Joel Coen’s judgment as to why this adaptation was called for.

    1. Hey Dustin,
      Totally fair I have to agree that this adaptation didn't really bring much new to the table, and I think the last meaningful reiteration of the story on film was Kurzel version, although even that was only truly notable for its gorgeous cinematography and overall style. I was in quite a poor mood because of something totally unrelated at the time of my commenting so I'm sorry for coming off harsh, I must say that you at the very least deserve credit for having the resolve to go against the grain and disagree with every other critic that loved this film.
      Godspeed and I hope you continue blazing your own critical trail as you have with this one, Dustin.