The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s solo adventure into Shakespearean drama, is well-made, beautiful and poetic, but it comes close to crossing the line of pretension. Its eerie tone, sharp visuals and perplexing dialogue do little to stop from leaving viewers with one feeling: boredom.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, obviously, retells the Scottish play on the modern screen. If you do not remember the plot of Macbeth from your high school literature class, first of all that’s a shame – get off SparkNotes! The story centers around Denzel Washington in the titular role of Macbeth, his bravado offering an impressively bold interpretation of the Shakespearean figure. A trio of witches – all played with an unsettling creepiness by the talented Kathryn Hunter – tell Macbeth that he will become the king of Scotland, leading him and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), to concoct a power-hungry scheme that sends each of them further and further into lunacy as Scotland suffers under Macbeth’s tyrannical rule.
The story of Macbeth has been told for hundreds of years; it’s a timeless tale of power, delusion and ambition. Coen evolves this tale through his direction, creating a lyrical yet brooding atmosphere. The dialogue, in all of Shakespeare’s flowery, confusing verbiage, may make the viewer wish the film came with subtitles (and, even then, who knows if that would actually help in understanding).
Despite its timelessness, retelling the play at this moment is far from a coincidence – it’s far from an unaware choice. The story of a power hungry man scheming his way into power for self-interest rather than the good of the nation? Sounds a bit familiar.
Washington’s take on this tyrannical, almost mythic character is one that will not be forgotten. His delusion is perfectly portrayed through sudden shifts between anger, confusion and kindness. Macbeth’s complexity is depicted so elegantly that awards show fans will not be surprised when they start hearing Washington’s name brought into the conversation for “Best Actor.”
Ultimately, the film’s strengths are its design and direction. It conveys the tone of the original play perfectly – feelings of lunacy and entrapment are evoked with every directorial choice. The black-and-white color palette and the sharp corners that plague the interiors through expert production design create scathing contrast that threatens to leave a scar on the spectator. Instead of letting the Scottish countryside wash over the screen, the film traps the viewer inside the white-washed walls of Macbeth’s castle, sparse of any decoration or vibrancy. Even the film’s boxy aspect ratio compels the viewer to wonder whether they too are falling into lunacy. Or is that just boredom?
The conclusive crux of The Tragedy of Macbeth is its strength. It is so easy to tell it is well-made and calculated that approaches the edge of dullness. Before the film even begins, its entire nature as an “artistic” or “beautiful” piece is understood. A black-and-white Shakespearean drama by Joel Coen for A24? If that’s not a recipe for a film that will make snobby movie buffs crumble to their knees, I don’t know what is.
But the lasting mark of pretension mars the film, preventing it from becoming a true classic that will ignite a flame of passion within the viewer. It is one thing to understand that something is good; it’s another for something to be good and entertaining. And – apologies to my high school English teacher – an hour and forty minutes of Shakespearean talk is not only monotonous but straight-up exhausting.
While there is a lot to praise with The Tragedy of Macbeth – from Denzel's performance to the production design to the cinematography – it is simply not a fun or engaging film that is saying anything new. Is it good? Sure. Is it fun to watch? Unfortunately, no. It’s a beautiful retelling of a beautiful piece of literature but, in the end, I will be perfectly happy never watching this movie again.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Apple TV+.