What if there was a film version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that looked like if F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc had a baby?
This seems to be the central question that Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth asks and answers. Aesthetically distinct amongst its kin, The Tragedy of Macbeth holds its own against other cinematic iterations of the Scottish play, but it’s not reinventing the wheel, either. If a movie Macbeth impeccably styled after two greats of the silent era, only with sound, strikes you as a great time, you will love this. By the same token, if this idea does not appeal to you, don’t expect to be surprised.
While the combined star power of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is the obvious draw here—and they are living legends for good reason—the real stars of this film, in all its austerity, is the below-the-line production team. Every frame of The Tragedy of Macbeth is a work of art. There is not so much as a hair on a head or a leaf on a tree that does not feel precisely curated. In this way, the film strikes an interesting balance between gore and sterility—the violence here is graphic and brutal, but clean. Blood drips and pools on the floor on occasion when it suits the aesthetics, but elsewhere a blade just stabbed into a torso will pull away spotless.
Mary Zophres’ costumes are masterpieces of texture that feel precisely patterned and yet mesmerizingly organic, and not even the smallest detail comes across as left to chance. As Lord Banquo, Bertie Carvel’s ensemble is not just perfectly coordinated but his eyebrows modified to bushy, scraggly caterpillars that precisely match the fur lining of his cloak.
Stefan Dechant’s production design perfectly recreates the strange geometries of German Expressionism to a degree that it can feel like stepping into a time machine. Both gorgeous and sparse, the sets are graphically intriguing and only dressed with precisely what is needed—there are no spare props or clutter to speak of. Any chair that is seen will be sat in; any cup will be drunk from or hurled across the room.
That being said, while the department heads do feel like the real stars here, of the cast, one supporting player does steal the show—accoladed Shakespearian stage actress Kathryn Hunter, who gives a mesmerizingly eerie performance as the Three Witches. McDormand and Washington are top-of-their generation talents, but Hunter displays an incredible, almost preternatural physicality—almost Lon Cheney-esque—that feels especially at home in the 1920s aesthetics of it all. At times it’s like watching Gollum without motion capture.
The Murnau of it all sometimes works a little better than the Dreyer. Coen makes a pointed stance in how he handles monologuing—that is, sticking to stark high-contrast close-ups of the actor’s faces all the way through (no pivot-to-voice-over) in a way that feels lifted straight from The Passion of Joan of Arc. The issue is that in silent film, these shots tend to work as a sort of shorthand. The camera often doesn’t actually linger long enough for someone giving a speech to deliver the speech, the shot generally just establishes who is speaking and the way in which they are speaking before the film cuts to the explanatory intertitle. When the same approach is taken in a sound film that just so happens to have some very long monologues, certain shortcomings to the technique become apparent, especially when it comes to some of the drier, more expositional monologues earlier in the story.
Coen holds firm on maintaining this approach anyway, but one unfortunate quality of the film that feels like a possible byproduct of this approach is the extent to which a lot of the monologues feel rather rushed: No pauses for suspense or thought or just to let a viewer process what’s been said; just bulldozed straight through. At times, particularly with Denzel, it nearly borderlines mumblecore, especially earlier on when Macbeth is still more or less sane. Once he starts unraveling, he takes more time with the lines and it becomes as big and compelling of a performance as one would hope. While some of the Bard’s iconic wordplay lands, a good bit gets lost in the rush—considering the crux of Shakespeare’s genius is his wordsmithing, this feels like a particular loss.
The technical execution is stunning, but ultimately the thematic underpinnings feel somewhat less robust. The Tragedy of Macbeth is gorgeous to look at but ultimately does not add all too much to think about that is not provided by that seminal Shakespeare text. There does not seem to be a layered thesis behind the “why” of the approach so much as a “why not, it looks cool.” It does not come across like it is echoing the past to say anything in particular beyond testing to see if that past artistry can be recaptured, and indeed it can. A simple question with a simple answer.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, it’s just also not the sort of film that tends to linger on the mind for all too long—and is perhaps a smidge less than one expects at this point from someone as iconic in his own right as Joel Coen. It feels, quite bluntly, perhaps most reminiscent of The Artist—a well-crafted novelty project that recapitulates the highlights of a bygone era but forgets to establish any strongly distinguishing features of its own. For fans of Shakespeare, German expressionism, McDormand, or Denzel, it’s worth a viewing, but five years from now, it feels a safe bet that the bulk of this film’s viewers will be the myriad students who are definitely going to end up watching this for class.
For those going into this movie wondering who Joel Coen is as a filmmaker without Ethan by his side, the answer is that this question remains once the credits roll, because The Tragedy of Macbeth is, more than anything, an incredible act of mimicry—a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, but less than one would expect from a filmmaker of Coen’s distinction.
The Tragedy of Macbeth was reviewed out of 2021’s New York Film Festival. The film will receive a limited theatrical release on December 25, 2021, and will start streaming on Apple TV+ on January 14, 2022.
Image sources (in order of posting): Apple, A24