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Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is a Stark and Striking Exploration of the Corruptive Power of Ambition

December 25, 2021Ben MK

What happens when you bring together two of the most talented actors of their generation to tell a story written by one of the most renowned playwrights in history? In the case of Joel Coen's black-and-white retelling of The Tragedy of Macbeth, the answer is one of the most striking adaptations of the William Shakespeare's classic ever brought to the screen. For even though many a talented filmmaker have tried their hand at creating the definitive movie version of the Bard's famous play, it's arguable that no one has come closer than Coen, whose bare-bones interpretation of Shakespeare's 17th-century drama cuts to the core of this cautionary tale like a bloodstained dagger.

Starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, the film chronicles Macbeth's rise to power, a journey eerily predicted by the weird sisters (Kathryn Hunter), whose enigmatic and mystifying visions drive the determined Scottish general to murder King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) in an attempt to seize the throne. Unfortunately for Macbeth and his victims, the bloodshed doesn't stop there. Aided by his equally ambitious wife, Macbeth embarks on something of a killing spree, even going so far as enlisting the services of a nobleman named Ross (Alex Hassell) and a couple of thugs to kill his good friend and compatriot Banquo (Bertie Carvel), all in a bid to cover up his misdeeds and to secure his place as the ruler of Scotland. However, when Macbeth incurs the wrath of the righteous Macduff (Corey Hawkins), it spells the beginning of his end. For just as the weird sisters prophesied Macbeth's fortunes, so too have they seen his downfall. And despite Macbeth's best efforts, neither he nor Lady Macbeth will be able to stave off the grim spectre that awaits them in the shadows.

Bolstered by an impressive supporting cast, what follows will no doubt stir up memories of high school English class in many viewers, as Coen doesn't seem to have wasted any screen time — or any of the movie's budget, for that matter — on flourishes that aren't crucial to the narrative. Suffice to say, you won't find any modern twists, flashy CGI or unnecessarily extravagant frills here. Yet, although, the film's production design and visuals are streamlined and sparse, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has certainly made good use of them, filling every frame with imagery just as haunting as Shakespeare's prose. Similarly, composer Carter Burwell's score is equally evocative, lurking in the background of every scene and ready to pounce with each dramatic turn.

Of course, it's Washington and McDormand who are the main draws here. And, as expected, the two veteran actors don't disappoint in the slightest. Bringing his usual gravitas to the title role, Washington excels at inviting viewers into the tortured mind of his character. Whether it's a dialogue with other actors of a soliloquy directed solely towards the audience, the 66-year-old actor shows that he's just as comfortable with Shakespeare's Elizabethan English as he has proven to be in modern-day roles. Meanwhile, the 64-year-old McDormand follows up her Oscar-winning role in Nomadland with yet another stunning performance, delivering each of her lines with such conviction that even the weird sisters themselves might foresee another golden statue in her future.

The result is a cinematic vision that, despite its themes of doom and gloom, feels surprisingly refreshing, especially with moviegoers being constantly bombarded by sequels and reboots. And while The Tragedy of Macbeth may itself be considered a remake of sorts, it's at least a reminder that not all remakes are intended to dethrone their predecessors. Some, it turns out, only have ambitions to introduce a new generation to the classics.

The Tragedy of Macbeth releases December 25th, 2021 from Apple Original Films. The film has an MPAA rating of R for violence. Its runtime is 1 hr. 45 min.

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