‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Review: A Faithful, Commendable Adaptation With Great Aesthetics


‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is the latest cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s five-act play of the same name. Adapted for the screen and directed by Joel Coen of the celebrated Coen brothers pair, it is the first film after the brothers split up last year, and has no involvement of Ethan at all. Adapted from the play mostly scene-by-scene, ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ plots the Scottish general’s rise from Thane to King, and the dramatic fall that follows. The film, shot exquisitely in black and white, is led by brilliant performances, especially from Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington. It often feels great to watch and, without a doubt, is an absolute must for enthusiasts of film and literature.

Scotland is amidst war with Norway and Ireland when King Duncan is reported of the valiant Thane Macbeth’s actions on the battlefield, which have heavily turned the war in Scotland’s favor. Macbeth, along with his friend and compatriot Banquo, returns to camp when a strange old woman (and her two shadows) appears on the battlefield. She makes prophecies for Macbeth, calling him the Thane of Glamis, who shall soon be the Thane of Cawdor, and then the King of Scotland; and also says that Banquo would be father to a King. The pair walk away in disbelief and disregard, but are soon informed of Duncan’s decision to make Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor.

A sense of unrest and greed starts to grow in Macbeth as he visits Duncan and hears of the King’s wish to visit his castle on his way back from the battlefield. Macbeth writes the news to his wife, Lady Macbeth, who is kindled with a fire of ambition and zeal to make the prophecy come true. As her husband returns ahead of Duncan, Lady Macbeth encourages him to make use of the chance of the King’s visit and achieve what has already been envisioned for him. Macbeth’s weak protestations and hesitations are blown away by his wife’s strong and passionate words. The two plot a plan to drug the King’s chamberlains with alcohol, and then murder the sleeping Duncan to make Macbeth the next King of Scotland.

From the perspective of narrative as well as dialogue, the film follows the play in its truest sense. Whatever happens on screen and what the characters say to each other are exactly in line with the original text of the play, perhaps making the film a true cinematic adaptation of the literary text. This quite obviously brings to the watch the exact tense fervor of the dagger scene, the growing confusion of the banquet scene, to the sense of pride as well as loss in the final scene, and so on, that the original play had. 

Only a few scenes in the film play out differently from the drama, and they too are mostly visual changes in space and appearance. The scenes with the witches, of course, are the ones with the most variation since the appearance of the witches as well as their conjuring are hard to imagine in any fixed form in the play. The space in which the entire film unfolds also seems to be a big nod towards the theatrical staging of Macbeth. Whatever is seen behind the characters, ranging from the densely fogged battlegrounds of Scotland to the exterior of Macbeth’s castle at Inverness, to its interior as well, has very little depth or detail to them. They appear mostly as backdrops, as they would appear on the stage, and the characters mostly have no interaction with the space at all, unless it is part of the original narrative.

What then makes ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ such a good film are all its cinematic elements. While the set of the film has been created in almost complete accordance with the original text, the use of lighting as part of the mise-en-scene is brilliantly original. As bright lights fall on the frame in between columns in the corridor and against long pillars inside the Inverness castle, the light and darkness often mirror the rise of ambition and emotions within the protagonist couple. Although the camerawork is nothing exceptional for much of the film, the cinematography in some specific scenes adequately brings out the intended mood in them. Color too has been cleverly used, with varying shades of gray and black aptly used throughout the film. 

There can be no doubt that much of the success of an adaptation of Macbeth is based on the performance of the actors, and ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is no exception. While the entire cast can be praised for their heartfelt work, it is the portrayals of Lady Macbeth and her husband that transcend the film to the next level. Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth not just play out their roles brilliantly, but also, in turn, make the watching experience wholly aesthetic and engrossing. Sound and music have also been crafted very well, and have been used authentically as well as creatively to bring out many scenes, particularly the ones around the murder of Duncan.

Amidst film adaptations of Shakespeare that often present the play in front of a different context and background, Joel Coen’s decision to faithfully adapt the original text, and in such a brilliant manner, comes as a breath of fresh air. While the plot of the age-old drama is known to perhaps most viewers, the visuals and aesthetics of the film alone make it a must-watch. Adding to that, an equally brilliant cast and clever filmmaking makes ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare in cinema to date.

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is a 2021 Period Drama film directed by Joel Coen.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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