Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth: A Somber Shakespearean Experience in Film

7 min readJan 14, 2022


Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Over the last few decades, there have been numerous film, television, and stage adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Some are better than others, but all manage to capture the tragedy of the Scottish king and the guilt he feels over the lives he takes in his quest for power. One such adaptation, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, is a worthy addition to the canon of Shakespeare on film. He brings his unique vision to the story helping to elevate the material and making it even more compelling and gripping than before. While this latest adaptation has nothing new to offer in terms of the story itself, it does succeed in adapting the material in ways that make Shakespeare’s original seem almost as fresh as it was when it was first written while also capturing the themes and atmosphere that have made it such a classic and adding a modern cinematic sheen for a truly unique experience. The result is a film adaptation that is respectful of its source material and at the same time making a convincing argument for its greatness.

Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is an impressive piece of work that benefits significantly from the talents of an outstanding cast. The film is a fine ensemble piece with telling performances that help to make the material seem even more compelling and engaging than it would have been otherwise. Denzel Washington is appropriately intense and commanding in the titular role, bringing a level of complexity and psychological depth to the part that is sometimes lacking in other incarnations and it shows throughout the entire film. He manages to bring a sense of gravitas to the character and makes the role his own while still making it feel fresh, giving the material a new level of believability and making it easier to understand what he is thinking. It makes for a powerful performance. As Macbeth, he does an excellent job of conveying the tragedy of the character, the moral compromises he makes, and his eventual fall from grace. He is never one-note and manages to get the complexity of the character and the tragedy of the situation without ever becoming boring to watch.

Denzel Washington stars as “Lord Macbeth” and Frances McDormand stars as “Lady Macbeth” in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

He is ably supported by Frances McDormand, who gives yet another excellent performance in her career as the conniving and ambitious Lady Macbeth. She flawlessly captures the madness and chaos of the character and the emotional turmoil that goes with it. The level of complexity and subtlety of her performance is impressive, and she’s able to make the character both sympathetic and monstrous at the same time. It helps to make this story even more chilling than it already is. The film benefits tremendously from the presence of the two, who generate a great deal of chemistry and tension together, making the scenes when they are on screen together feel even more intense and emotionally charged than they would have without them. It’s a great showcase of two great actors bringing their A-game to the screen, and they’re both fantastic.

Kathryn Hunter’s performance is also an essential addition to the film, and she gives a wonderfully creepy performance as the three witches. She manages to eke a lot of fear and emotion out of her small screen time, and she’s able to add a great sense of physicality to the role that makes them feel like a real force of evil. The film also has a few standout supporting performances, including Corey Hawkins as the sensible and well-meaning Macduff, Brendan Gleeson who is surprisingly effective as King Duncan and Alex Hassell as Ross, the cynical mischievous monk. All in all, everyone does a great job in their respective roles bringing Shakespeare’s play to a whole new level of intensity and quality and making The Tragedy of Macbeth a genuinely remarkable film adaptation.

Kathryn Hunter in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

The performances are not the only sole selling point of the film, though, and it’s also the technical aspects of the film that make it a fascinating watch. Shot entirely in black-and-white with the actors working on sound stages, the film captures a world unmoored from reality and a real sense of the time period. On top of that, it has a simple but striking visual style that helps set it apart from the plethora of other classic tragedies. The incredible production design by Stefan Dechant infuses the film with a gothic and expressionist aesthetic that is both fitting for the material. He does a great job at capturing the bleak and unforgiving world of the play, giving it an appropriately grim and gloomy atmosphere and showing off the beauty and genius of the original stage production without ever feeling derivative or unnecessary. It’s an impressive effort, and it helps make the film feel more authentic and grounded than a lot of other adaptations. Furthermore, the sets are dark, the lighting is minimal, and the film plays with the viewer’s expectations at every turn. These create a truly striking visual experience that is at once nostalgic, familiar, and downright eerie, bringing out much of the mystery, somberness, and tragedy that are inherent to the story.

Also, the whole film has a unique cinematography style, and it’s the work of Bruno Delbonnel himself. Like the production design, he manages to capture the starkness and bleakness of Macbeth’s world and how it’s been stripped of any comforting elements. This helps to accentuate the story’s grimness, and the clarity of the mise-en-scène helps keep the viewers grounded in the world of the play, making it easier to understand what is going on. The film’s look is similar to the classic German expressionist films, with a heavy dose of terror and desolation, and it feels a lot like watching a classic horror film from the 1920s. The use of light and shadow is also impressive, and the way it is used to highlight the tragic aspects and emotions of the story is a significant visual effect. In addition, the use of smoke, fog, and darkness in the film help create an oppressive atmosphere that makes the material feel much more visceral and realistic, which only serves to heighten the impact of the scenes.

An exterior shot of Warner Bros. massive Stage 16 depicting the film’s moody crossroads set.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is yet another in a long line of great films that Joel Coen has been involved in. Known for working with his brother, Ethan Coen, on all their projects, this is the first time he has directed a film all on his own. While we all know the source material instinctively, we can’t help but expect that he’ll give it some sort of unique treatment, and he delivers in spades. The film is a tight and concise adaptation that’s as powerful as the source material, which is no small feat. It manages to capture the essence of the tragedy while injecting it with unique and powerful stylistic elements that help elevate it to another level. At just over an hour and 45 minutes, it manages to show the nature of the tragic play without feeling like a long, drawn-out drama. It does so by relying heavily on atmosphere and visuals to create a very distinctive visual experience. There are a few instances where the film drags out a bit, but they are few and far between, and they are never enough to make you want to skip a moment.

Kathryn Hunter, writer/director Joel Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel behind the scenes of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Joel Coen’s take on the tragic play is a haunting, atmospheric, and visceral experience that relies heavily on its performances and visuals that never feel over the top or unnecessary. It’s a great homage to the source material, and it manages to capture the essence of the tragedy without being too literal or losing the complexity and ambiguity that make the play so great. For fans of Shakespeare and classic tragedies, it’s a must-see, but it’s also worth seeing, even if you are not familiar with the source material. It’s an impressive film that further cements Joel Coen’s name as one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and it marks the beginning of his remarkable career as a solo director.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is now streaming on Apple TV+.




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