Review: THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, Vanity Is Thy Name

Denzel Washington and Frances MacDorman star in a film directed by Joel Coen, adapted from the works of William Shakespeare.

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
Review: THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, Vanity Is Thy Name

The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the solo outing of Joel Coen as a director, one half of the brothers team behind such classics as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.

It stars the indomitable Denzel Washington as the ambitious, murderous Scotsman and the great Frances McDormand (also the director's wife) as the Lady M. With a great ensemble of British, Scottish, Irish and American actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel and Kathryn Hunter, I have to say, acting in this is fantastic. 

But there have been many famous screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s play before this reiteration. So the first question anyone would naturally ask is, is another adaptation of the famous Scottish play really necessary? Most recently, we had a sexy, action-packed version directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cortillard that no one saw.

Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return after a victorious battle over invading Norwegian forces, then encounter witches (?) in the forms of crows. They instill the idea in the returning warriors that Macbeth will be king and Banquo's offspring will take over the throne down the line.

The rest of the film is predicated on that foretelling and Macbeth acting upon it. From the get-go, Lady Macbeth is all over the idea of killing off King Duncan (Gleeson). But after the deed is done and Macbeth assumes the throne, they get increasingly paranoid with guilt, with imaginary approaching heavy steps and bloodstains that never wash away. Sleep no more. Macbeth can never rest easily. 

There is nothing wrong with Washington and McDormand's acting, eschewing the bard's juicy monologues with gusto and ease. His greying hair and beard and her wrinkles give their performances more edge, accentuating the aging couple's desperate last shot at glory.

But it's Kathryn Hunter who steals the show. She portrays the manifestation of the three witches. Her contortionist body movement and the cadence of her gravelly voice in the beginning sets the uneasy tone of the whole film.

Shot in black and white in academy ratio, it is closer to a filmed stage play than a cinematic adaptation. Its German-expressionism inspired and minimalist set design, as well as CGI fog and a murder of crows, come across as cheap. And digital cinematography (nonetheless shot by the usually great DP Bruno Delbonnel) looks extremely flat and surprisingly uninspired.

Unfortunately, there is nothing special about Coen's directing: there are no battle scenes and the weird vibe has been done much better both in Polanski's and Welles' versions, as well as in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. It's as if Coen couldn't decide what direction he wanted to go and took the most boring, lazy route. The result is a boring, flat adaptation with hodge-podge styles from other classic period pieces, as if Macbeth the film is wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Even any semblance of Coen-ness is only briefly found in the appearance of Stephen Root, a character actor and frequent collaborator of the brothers as Porter, a comic relief.

At best, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a vanity project in which a director tries to please his wife by giving her a role she always wanted to play (for 15 years apparently). It also gives a clue to which Coen might be a Garfunkel of the duo. 

Originally published during the New York Film Festival in September 2021. The film releases December 25 via A24 Films

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at

The Tragedy of Macbeth

  • Joel Coen
  • Joel Coen
  • William Shakespeare
  • Denzel Washington
  • Frances McDormand
  • Alex Hassell
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A24 FilmsDenzel WashingtonFrance MacDormandJoel CoenUSWilliam ShakespeareFrances McDormandAlex HassellDramaHistoryThriller

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