The Tragedy of Macbeth Review: Denzel Washington is majestic in Joel Coen’s austere reimagining of the classic

The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand

The Tragedy of Macbeth Director: Joel Coen

Streaming Platform: Apple TV+

The Tragedy of Macbeth Stars: 3.5/5

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“Unnatural Acts / Breed Unnatural Trouble” When you entrust lead roles to veteran performers like Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, your work is almost half done. Add to that, the brilliant mind of the Coen brothers, Joel Cohen in the director’s chair is like icing on a delicious cake. The Tragedy of Macbeth attempts to revisit Shakespeare’s timeless classic Macbeth for the umpteenth time, but did it have something new to offer? Let’s find out.

Even those living under a rock will be well aware of the central storyline in Macbeth, which is Macbeth (Washington) and Lady Macbeth’s (McDormand) overzealous greed for power. Their overambitious mindsets drive them towards sinful acts, which comes back to bite them hard and push them to extreme bouts of insanity. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel, who is also billed as the writer, takes creative liberty, in the sense that the audience needs to be well aware of the prose to dive deep into the visuals. Instead of setting an introductory base, we’re taken neck-deep into the after-effects of Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) encountering the three witches, after defeating the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, who prophesy that Macbeth will be deemed King while Banquo will father a line of kings.

After being bestowed with the honour of Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), who simultaneously declares son Malcolm (Harry Melling) as the heir to his throne, Macbeth’s hidden ambition is fine-tuned further by his equally dominant wife Lady Macbeth, who uses all tactics to convince her husband to kill King Duncan. Pushed towards finally doing the deed of murder, the immediate guilty conscience comes blazing through for both and sees the Macbeths deal with the same in antithesis to each other. While Macbeth lays to waste a bloodbath of mammoth proportions, Lady Macbeth surrenders to lunacy.

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What’s intriguing about Joel Coen’s austere reimagining with The Tragedy of Macbeth, sitting amongst the best of the countless variations from generations past, is not just Macbeth being played by a man of colour, but that the two protagonists are well into their 60s. There is almost a defeatist undertone to a crackling Macbeth, who fought many a hard battles, and we see this in the many monologue deliveries by Denzel’s masterful performance. Washington’s Macbeth is well aware of his deeds and toes the lines between gluttonous and vulnerable and that switch is requisite in the memorable monologue just before King Duncan’s murder. Even under a tight duration of 105 minutes, the Oscar-winning actor is given ample space and time to deliver an emotionally charged performance and he does so with flying colours.

On the other hand, Frances oscillates between Lady Macbeth’s intemperate cause and her derangement effect with flawless ease, seen in the sequence where King Duncan’s death is announced and she looks at Macbeth’s immediate actions with shocked eyes, yet faints, pretending to traumatised by King Duncan’s death. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is toe-to-toe with Macbeth in both prose and visual and that’s thanks to the Oscar-winning actress’ inimitable dialogue delivery. What does exponentially lack in The Tragedy of Macbeth is the firm establishment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship, which almost feels decayed. Nevertheless, the classic “bloody hands” motif is tangibly played by both revered actors with staunch elegance, where every pause means something.

As for the supporting performances in The Tragedy of Macbeth, veteran actress Kathryn Hunter gifts us with a unique spin to the three witches and leaves you spellbound with her impeccable physical acting. There’s a nightmarish tinge to her performance that you’re left awe-struck by. Equally important and splendid in Alex Hassell’s smart take on Ross, as the character switches sides at the drop of a hat. Bertie’s Banquo is treated with resigned empathy while Brendan’s King Duncan is bestowed with the most thrilling depiction of his death scene, which he tackles with grace. Corey Hawkins as Macduff and Harry as Malcolm add the right dramatic flavours to the storyline while Moses Ingram as Lady Macduff and Lucas Barker as Banquo’s son Fleance impress in their limited timeframes.

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When it’s a Coen directorial, it’s not just the talented ensemble but the intricate aesthetic which leaves one enamoured. You may forget the story at some point, but you will always remember what the movie looked like. Choosing the black and white route and shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio for The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel mixes things up by making it equal parts old school cinematic and a play in motion. Joel’s broad vision is made palpable by Bruno Delbonnel’s overbearing cinematography while Coen and Lucian Johnston gamble with the structuring of the prose to fit the duration time, which may or may not douse Shakespeare-heads.

Stefan Dechant, Jason T. Clark and Nancy Haigh, who are in charge of the production design, art direction and set decoration of The Tragedy of Macbeth deserve major props for inducing the claustrophobic nature of Macbeth amid the Spanish moors. This is especially seen in Macbeth’s modernist castle where the tall structure helps build considerable light and shadows to loom over the characters’ evil intentions. Even though the setting doesn’t change as much, the foggy clouds, the cawing birds, and so forth add a squeamish touch, thanks to the brilliant sound mixing by Peter F. Furkland. This was ingeniously demonstrated in the dinner sequence where King Macbeth is visited by Banquo’s ghost. Carter Burwell’s music and Mary Zophres’ costume design add a dark, intriguing depth towards the characters arcs further.

With the absence of his brother Ethan Coen, Joel manages to add the inimitable Coen Brothers touch to Macbeth in The Tragedy of Macbeth, without ever compromising on classic, iconic textual narrative. Unlike their gory oeuvre, Joel flips a more subtle touch to the action scenes in the movie, which are as enthralling as they are artistic to gaze at. This is seen in King Macbeth’s hellish sword fights against Macduff and Siward (Richard Short). The modernistic elements feel like an appropriate touch to the narrative, which rings true even today, unfortunately.

In finality, The Tragedy of Macbeth focuses deeply on the tragedy that was Shakespeare’s most debatable character, Macbeth. And on that, it does a devilishly good deed. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair

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