The Tragedy of Macbeth – BFI London Film Festival Review

by Sarah Cook

Shakespeare has had more adaptations than you can wag a staff at. He is perhaps the most prolific and famed writer of the British Isles whose plays have been retold through centuries. 

We all know the plots; two star crossed lovers torn apart by their warring families; a son avenges his father’s death; a Lord is told he will become King. Shakespeare’s stories have been repurposed for the stage, the big screen, and the small one too.

So why do we flock to these stories countless amounts of times?

Well, because Shakespeare’s plays are great for an actor to wrap their chops around. 

This is very much the case for Joel Coen’s film The Tragedy of Macbeth, which sees Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand take on the ill-fated Lord and Lady roles respectively. However, it is Bruce Delbonnel, the films striking cinematographer, who takes centre stage here.

Tragedy of Macbeth' Trailer: Denzel Washington Descends Into Madness -  Variety

For those who don’t know, The Tragedy of Macbeth revolves around the titular character who, after a great battle, is given a prophecy that he will be King. When Macbeth tells his wife, she hatches a plan to murder the current King Duncan and claim the crown. But their sinister plans have grave consequences as they dissolve into madness. 

This new retelling of Macbeth strips everything back. There are no grand castles or the rolling landscapes of Scotland. Instead, director Joel Coen places tremendous actors in a Hollywood studio lot to just perform. Basically, that is what they do. Academy award-winning actors Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand spar with the Bard’s text and quake with an enormous intensity. From their tight-lipped, fervently whispered murder to each unravelling, Washington and McDormand are at the height of their powers. They are supported by Harry Melling, Bertie Carvel, and Brendon Gleeson. However, they are eclipsed by Kathryn Hunter’s contorting physicality of the witches, and Corey Hawken’s emotional performance as MacDuff.

As aforementioned, the acting is great – phenomenal even – but they are over-shadowed, literally, by the cinematography and production design. Borrowing from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Orson Welles’ adaptation, this striking black and white outing utilises the light and dark to frame this film. The centralised hallways and looming archways poetically frame the drama, gifting the audience breath-taking scenes that will linger long after-viewing. One would even suspect that Coen was inspired by Charles Loughton’s The Night of the Hunter; the haunting image of Lady Macbeth, driven to the edge of a cliff, is reminiscent of a ghoulish body still sat in a sunken car.

The biggest problem with The Tragedy of Macbeth is that there are so many productions, on stage and on screen, that it feels as though there needs to be some bigger hook than its star power to deserve its pound of flesh. Sadly, Coen’s retelling here falls flat in its storytelling and feels like a showcase for the performers, more so than a striking film.

As an ode to classic cinema, it is superb. As a Shakespeare adaptation, it feels more like hurly burly.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is closing the BFI London Film Festival
The film is out 25th December 2021

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