Review: ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ delivers on atmosphere and immaculate production design

Kathryn Hunter in "The Tragedy of Macbeth," now playing in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ Jan. 14. (Courtesy Apple TV+/TNS)
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Joshua Axelrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

At this point, William Shakespeare plays have been adapted ad nauseam for the big screen. It’s not enough anymore to just present the Bard’s melodious words and classic stories in movie form; a filmmaker needs to set his version of these well-worn tales apart from the crowd through his or her unique vision of the text.

When it was first announced that Joel Coen would be taking on “Macbeth” as a rare directorial effort without his brother Ethan, there was no telling what the final product would look like. Coen brothers movies vary wildly in tone, though most of them contain a playful energy that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with a narrative about an ambitious and morally bankrupt Scottish general.

And now we have our answer: “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now in theaters and on AppleTV+ Jan. 14, is a black-and-white, deadly serious film that stands out from other Shakespeare adaptations with two towering central performances, a singularly foreboding vibe and incredible production design that is sure to garner Academy Award consideration.

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It seems like Coen and his team were trying to make the cinematic experience of watching “The Tragedy of Macbeth” feel like taking in the play on stage. That’s how it comes off at least, which will almost certainly enrapture some viewers while alienating others.

For those who need a refresher on their Shakespeare, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) finds out from a trio of witches (played by Kathryn Hunter) that he is destined to become King of Scotland. He begins a bloody campaign to assume power and keep it, all the while spurred on by his wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand).

His increasingly violent actions eventually begin to take a toll on his mind and earn him some powerful enemies, like Malcom (Harry Melling) and Macduff (Corey Hawkins). Considering that the movie plays up the “tragedy” element of “Macbeth” in its title, you can imagine where it’s all going.

This isn’t one of those Shakespeare-inspired films where the dialogue is made more palatable for modern audiences. Coen’s script goes full Shakespeare, which may leave some cold while thrilling Shakespeare aficionados who believe his words should not be tampered with. Even if there will be some occasions where you won’t entirely understand what’s being conveyed, the actors make it pretty obvious what you should be feeling at any given moment.

What “The Tragedy of Macbeth” sometimes lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in atmosphere and aesthetics. An aura of dread shrouds everything, appropriate for a story with a resolution already known to many viewers. Whereas prior knowledge of “Macbeth” may have made the film’s 105-minute runtime a slog for some, its constantly building sense of anxiety makes the action even more compelling as the events unfold.

This movie is an achievement in set and production design, so special mentions are in order for set decorator Nancy Haigh and production designer Stefan Dechant. Again, all the settings feel like part of a stage production, and the way the film transitions between scenes is often reminiscent of watching a theater crew redress a stage to represent the next location. It’s classical, marvelous stuff, just like Shakespeare.

Even without his brother beside him, Coen proves to be a more than capable director. His use of shadows to shine spotlights on certain performers lends credence to what otherwise may seem like an unnecessary decision to make the film fully black and white. And he shows off his knack for framing actors in doorways and windows that make for some of the film’s most compelling visual imagery.

Unsurprisingly, the two multi-Oscar winners put in sterling work. Washington’s Macbeth goes from simply power-hungry to truly cruel and unraveling as his actions weigh on him. He seemed to be relishing his opportunities to tackle Shakespeare soliloquies, and he’s never afraid to go big when the opportunity arises.

McDormand, coming off winning the best actress Oscar for her “Nomadland” performance, never lets you forget that Lady Macbeth is the real force to be reckoned with. And when Lady Macbeth eventually also cracks under the pressure brought on by her misdeeds, McDormand’s ability to portray her brokenness is further evidence of why she has earned three Academy Awards.

Though “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is dense, it’s worth wading through for the exquisite production design, the work of its two leads, and Coen’s clear reverence for the source material he has molded to his own more-than-worthy cinematic vision.

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‘THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for violence)

Running time: 1:45

Where to watch: Now playing in theaters and streaming on AppleTV+ Jan. 14.

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