Review | ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, by Joel Coen, is consecrated as one of the best retellings of William Shakespeare

By the itch in my thumbs, something nefarious comes this way.

These are the two sentences that manage to sum up the poignancy of the classic play ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, by the English author William Shakespeare. The story, set in Scotland in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, revolves around the titular character, a wily king without any scruples whose unmeasured ambition foreshadows his downfall. Once loyal to those around him, Macbeth teams up with his wife, just as damnable as he is, to drive them out of their way and ascend to the throne – collecting countless enemies who claim vengeance against his tyrannical and bloody reign of chaos.

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Adapting Shakespeare’s plays for television or film is not an easy job – and unless you have a thorough understanding of how a playwright’s work works (as Kenneth Branagh and its dozens of filmic re-readings), falling into monotony and formulas of the dramatic genre is practically right. We cannot forget, for example, the troubled epic ‘Macbeth: Ambition & War’, from Justin Kurzel, which did not do justice to the incredible characters – which is why I confess that I was skeptical about the version of Joel Coen. Fortunately, the feature film, which arrived today in the catalog of Apple TV+, surpassed all expectations and became not only one of the best Shakespearean translations, but also one of the best productions of the last ten years (and a great solo debut by Coen in the direction).

The design of the project is already of interest to anyone who looks at the film’s technical file; after all, we have Denzel Washington playing the title protagonist, and Frances McDormand living Lady Macbeth – both merging in a voracious cycle of greed that takes them on a path quite different from what they expected. In one of his wanderings after emerging victorious from a shocking battle, Macbeth crosses paths with the Strange Sisters, three prophetic witches (lived by an irreproachable surrender of Kathryn Hunter) who anticipate his rise to power and that nothing will remove him from the throne – except for a confusing metaphor that is not immediately clear. Wrapped with pride, Macbeth, who is not content with the role he has been given in the nobility and military circle, kills King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and frightens the heirs of blood to take the crown for himself and start a fearsome governance filled with fear and squalor.

Every element of the feature is thought out with extreme care – a feat that makes it even more spectacular than it is. Joel, who has lent his skills to high-caliber productions alongside his brother, Ethan Coen, What ‘Fargo’, ‘Indomitable Bravery’ e ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. Getting rid of the shackles served as a breather for Joel to promote his own aesthetic – and he did it in the best possible way, performing a breathtaking image contortion that, at the same time, emulated countless references from the history of cinema and managed a beautiful and timeless epic tale.

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To say that Washington and McDormand are great is to not be able to express the magic they create on screen: the duo, when together, when separately, commands the scenes without losing the essence of the characters and without letting any detail escape their hands. Both veterans know that they have much more to deliver regarding the art they swore to defend, and they immortalized themselves within two archetypes that are used as a reference to this day. They put it in check, guided by the presence of other persons, like Macduff (Corey Hawkins), Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and Malcolm (Harry Melling), the Manichaeism that imposes itself on the royal figure: Macbeth is not a benevolent king, just as Lady Macbeth is not a trustworthy queen. They got to where they are by disengaging themselves from the needs of their allies and breaking the moral character they once defended, turning them into what would bring their downfall.

The film’s aesthetics also deviate from the conventional and bet on a fantastic theatricality. All the sets were transported to stages and shrouded in a macabre mist that removes the period weight of the original play and pays homage to the titles of German Expressionism, mainly to the career of Fritz Lang. Coen teams up with director of photography Bruno Delbonnel (‘The Fate of a Nation’) and abuses a long perspective that transmutes the sequences into a labyrinth of emotions, reflecting a fondness for psychological suspense; the play of light and shadow is constant and taken to the expressions of the protagonists and supporting actors to create ambiguity in their attitudes – such as Macbeth’s complex personality or Lady Macbeth’s fall into madness. And on top of all that, we have the evocative soundtrack of Carter Burwell, which appears at the right moments without even touching emotional pedantry.

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‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ already established itself as one of the best films of the year – and I find it very difficult that any production can surpass what was built. Here, all the gears work in a complete organism, supporting each other to ensure that William Shakespeare is honored in the most solid and stunning way possible.

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