‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’: a stunning telling of moral terror

In a stunning black-and-white telling of William Shakespeare’s tale of moral terror, director Joel Coen—for the first time minus joined-at-the-sibling-hip collaborator Ethan Coen—creates an atmosphere that overpowers you right from the first shot. As a precursor to Macbeth’s imminent loss of all sense of his virtuous coordinates, Coen plays with your spatial center of gravity, getting in the three witches to circle in a mist of pall. The script, written by Coen, keeps the sinew and nerves of the original play intact, flexing and burning right through its descent into dark crevices. 

Frances McDormand: haunted and haunting.

Staging the movie in controlled domes of doom, the director straddles the worlds of cinema and stage with an assured stride that ensures that they both diffuse into one another, making the hopelessness of the entire story hit home with a force that’s at once invisible and powerful. Coen doesn’t force his cinematic sense onto the bard’s words, adding layers with his visuals and deft treatment, making The Tragedy of Macbeth work as an ingrained spooky telling beneath the skin of human foibles. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel gets in the wizardry of his Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, adding a dash of Dark Shadows. With production designer Stefan Dechant, he creates imagery of claustrophobia and inescapable traps of the mind, using light to architect hypnotic symmetrical structures, dank stairways, and a gloam of death, including in the riveting outdoor sequences and breath-taking action choreography. It’s Shakespeare meets noir meets gothic, with shadows from Welles and Hitchcock looming around unlit turns.

With a terrific cast that encompasses and expands Coen’s vision, the movie, though not a primer for the play, sinks into an irretrievable depth of moral morass, taking you along for an unnerving tour. The superb Brendan Gleeson cameos as the ill-fated King Duncan, while Alex Hassell as the mysteriously ambivalent Ross shines in the darkness. There’s Bertie Carvel in a fine turn as Banquo, Macbeth’s friend-turned-threat, while Corey Hawkins as Macduff is beautifully expressive and translucent, almost creating poetry with the pain his character has to endure. The mind-bogglingly good, shape-shifting Kathryn Hunter is a highlight, adding shivers of nervous pleasure as she embodies the three witches, while Harry Melling plays Malcolm, King Duncan’s rightful heir. 

Denzel Washington: the killing knife, having killed…

Denzel Washington as Macbeth is a class act. World-weary, jinxed by ambition, wracked by guilt, and overcome by the hubris of power, his deliveries are weighed in equal measure desperation and unease. Frances McDormand, ever fantastic, wreaks a Lady Macbeth so tightly wound, she mesmerizes as she walks into the dark alleys of madness, guilt weighing heavily on her conscience and sleep, ‘unnatural deeds breeding unnatural troubles’ in her fine act. It’s she who unnerves and disturbs you, haunted and haunting, and when she lets out a wail, you freeze in horror, that very blood turning into icicles of disturbia. Plus, composer Carter Burwell adds layers of portentous bass thuds overlaid by liberating strings, all ominous and ultimately tragic. 

Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel: don’t look up.

Coen’s movie begs the same question that the play did. Is any human being free from guilt, as our moral compass keeps getting heavier as we age, bearing the weights of our past actions, and yet leaving us at the crossroads of vacillating decisions and confusing signals? As the stunning scene involving soldiers holding branches from Birnam Wood came up—my first thought was the hilarious scene involving the madcap gang from Padosan trailing a hapless Mehmood and an uppity Saira Banu in Vrindavan Gardens—it also hit home an important message. In life, it’s not what’s camouflaged that matters. It’s what the misleading cover is. That, plus, when you use prophecies as your North Star to make your next move, be sure to read the fine print first. 

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. The Tragedy of Macbeth is streaming on Apple TV+ and rated  A (Adults only) for violence.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
Director Joel Coen Time 1h 45m
Writers Joel CoenWilliam Shakespeare (based on the play by) 
Stars Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Kathryn Hunter
Genres Drama, History, Thriller, War