‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Movie Review: A Shakespearean Letdown

The Tragedy of Macbeth features an absurdly talented ensemble working on a project that doesn’t have much of a reason to exist. Writer/director Joel Coen splits ways with his brother, Ethan, for the first time. The Tragedy of Macbeth is led by brilliant performances from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, yet the movie begs the question: does the world really need another take on this particular William Shakespeare tragedy?

What is ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’?

'The Tragedy of Macbeth' review Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth touching their foreheads against each other's
L-R: Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth | A24

Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which was first published in 1623. The story follows a Scottish general named Macbeth (Washington), who discovers a trio of witches (Kathryn Hunter). They inform him of his future of becoming the King of Scotland. Macbeth takes this news back to his wife, Lady Macbeth (McDormand), who encourages him to take action for the crown.

The pressure from this prophecy and Lady Macbeth’s words inspire Macbeth to do whatever it takes to seize the Scottish throne. However, his actions don’t go unpunished. Macbeth falls into a pit of madness as he finds himself trapped in a downward spiral full of murder, deceit, and paranoia. There’s no turning back.

Joel Coen brings Shakespearean theatre to the silver screen

Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth keeps some elements of Shakespeare’s tragedy the same. However, some tweaks are made to make it his own. Elements of madness, power, and corruption are all still present. The trio of witches’ news fully realizes both Macbeth’s greatest dreams and nightmares. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth incorporates the cost of desire in multiple facets. Macbeth finds himself at several intersections in this regard, including his rise to kinghood, his relationship with Lady Macbeth and his subjects, as well as his very mortality. 

Coen’s biggest contribution to The Tragedy of Macbeth is the added subtext of aging. This iteration of Macbeth is largely sprung into action as a result of only having so much longer. He dreams of a better life for himself and Lady Macbeth. Their very mortality is constantly looming under the surface of every motivation. By making a slightly older Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Coen achieves an additional layer of nuance.

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is yet another Shakespeare adaptation

'The Tragedy of Macbeth' review Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth sitting on a bed looking up
Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth | A24

The Tragedy of Macbeth is filmed with Bruno Delbonnel’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. He has 5 Oscar nominations for other features including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Inside Llewyn Davis. The Tragedy of Macbeth is further proof that his collaboration with Coen is unstoppable. The film visually blends theatre gravitas with cinematic style.

The traditional Shakespearean speak may take some time for audiences to adjust to. However, Washington turns in one of his most brilliant performances. McDormand shows every ounce of her passion for the content through her phenomenal performance. Yet, Hunter’s trio of witches steals the spotlight every time she’s on the screen. She’s truly haunting and immediately commands attention with a stellar screen presence.

Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is far from the first adaptation of the famous Shakespeare tragedy. There are over 25 movie adaptations that have taken a stab at it. This is the type of A24 film that Shakespeare lovers will eat up, but it’s not very accessible. It’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, yet it’s far from the best Macbeth film adaptation out there.

The Tragedy of Macbeth comes to theaters Dec. 25 and will stream on Apple TV+ starting Jan. 14.

RELATED: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: Joel Coen Explains Why the Coen Brothers Split Ways