The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

My first exposure to the world of Shakespeare and the world of Macbeth was when my tenth-grade English class studied the play. To aid us in our comprehension of the play, the teacher also screened for us an old beaten up VHS copy of Roman Polanski’s brutal, barbaric, violent, Playboy-produced highly realistic interpretation of the Scottish Play from 1971. Stick with me, here, this will become relevant.

So, how does Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth fare? It is an accomplished piece of filmmaking, to be sure, and a far-cry from the dirty world of Polanski’s Macbeth. Mr. Coen has carefully crafted a very deliberate atmosphere, here, with every single filmmaking element pared down to the absolute minimum, and he should be applauded with how successfully he has realized his vision. However, as technically accomplished as it is, it seems that what has been lost is the ‘edge’ and the savagery of the source material (such as Polanksi’s retelling).

Mr. Coen’s slickly produced, pared-down interpretation feels by comparison muted in its overall emotional impact. The Bard’s words being performed against desolately minimalist sets left me wanting. What made for a fantastic trailer (A24 strikes again!) doesn’t quite deliver in the feature presentation.

There is a lot to love with The Tragedy of Macbeth. And many will love this film, if only for the vibes that its visuals evoke. Coen’s Macbeth is absolutely gorgeous to look at, shot in glorious black and white entirely on soundstages that could well have been leftover sets from UFA’s German Expressionist/silent film period. The sets are comparable to those found in early Fritz Lang pictures!

And while the performances themselves were really very good, their relatively subdued and realistic nature did not lend themselves to the minimalist production. One unexpected highlight was Kathryn Hunter, who plays the three Weird Sisters. Her ever-contorting, very physical, almost monstrous embodiment of the Weird Sisters is perhaps the most memorable performance of the film, and this is evidently down to the nature of her triple-role being less bound by the conventions of ‘realistic’ performance.

It truly is a tragedy (if you will forgive the hyperbolous pun) because in watching the film, one can tell that one is in the hands of greatness, and there is much greatness presented on-screen, but the overall experience is somehow a little less than the sum of its parts.

By Liam Devitt

December 31, 2021