The Tragedy of Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’? It Wasn’t Necessary

Forrest Hartman



The Tragedy of Macbeth

Directed by: Joel Coen

Starring: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins and Harry Melling

Rated: R

Available on: Apple TV+ and in select theaters

Critical rating: 2½ out of 4


Calling writer-director Joel Coen’s screen treatment of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth bad would be inaccurate, but all is forgiven if it inspires just a shrug and a yawn. The Tragedy of Macbeth, as Coen has titled his film, is difficult to critique because he has assembled a wonderful cast, and he puts all his considerable visual storytelling skills to work in translating the play to screen, yet – for all but the most hardened Shakespeare afficionados – it seems destined to disappoint.


In criticizing the movie, one runs the risk of being labeled as uncultured because it’s the sort of film that we of the highbrow mindset are supposed to love. It is beautifully shot, magnificently acted, and tailormade for awards season. Yet … it commands none of the energy and magnificence of live theater because, well, it’s not live theater.



The 2021 adaptations of West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM! work because the frenetic energy of the music largely makes up for the problems that occur when a work written for stage is transitioned to a new medium. With Macbeth, not so much.


Coen decided to present the work in black-and-white, giving his shots a film noir mystique that is both beautiful and commanding. Yet I can’t help but think that the greyscale imagery ultimately works against him. When one brings Shakespeare to the screen, the glory is in opening the storytelling in the manner only available on film. Otherwise, why not stick to traditional stage productions, where live performance makes everything more exciting?


Coen tries to open the work by giving us a variety of settings, but – as gorgeous as they are – each carries a sense of familiarity. A change in the film’s locale feels more like a set switch in theater than an actual geographical move. Perhaps shooting in color would have created a greater sense of immediacy and realism, making the work feel less like a filmed play. “Oh, but reverence to theater is the point,” fans may exclaim! To them, I respond that I do not go to the movies to watch plays, just as I don’t go to live theater with the expectation of seeing a movie.



As a fan of theater, movies, and – truth told – Coen, it makes me happy that there are many who love this retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy. The film currently has a 93% positive rating on, and it landed two Critics Choice Award nominations (full disclosure, I vote for those awards but did not nominate the picture). As a critic, I never resent someone for liking a film, even if it disappoints me. Art is subjective, and it’s usually possible to squeeze something of value from even the most banal of creations.


That said, a critic must be honest, and The Tragedy of Macbeth does not work for me. I have no desire to see it again. Even the lure of Denzel Washington in the title role can’t bring me back, despite the fact that he is unquestionably good.


As one typically does with Shakespeare, Coen retains the Bard’s original language. This is not an update that focuses on story at the expense of prose. One could write an essay about whether it is ever appropriate to change the language in a Shakespeare work when attempting an adaptation, but that digression needn’t occur here. The bottom line is that Coen decides on reverence, and I think that’s why I found his work to be, well, boring.



I have seen Macbeth on stage and – because of the dark subject matter and lengthy soliloquies – it can be a slog even there. But the excitement of live theater, of actors doing their work mere feet from your seat, brings an energy that just isn’t present when streaming on AppleTV+. Adding to the difficulty of a screen adaptation is the fact that Macbeth and his lady love – played for the film by Frances McDormand – are terrible people. That makes the story work well as a noir, but the fact that something works doesn’t make it necessary or enjoyable. In the end, that’s perhaps the most apt criticism of this project.


The Tragedy of Macbeth, as presented by Coen and company, is a worthy piece of art, but it’s a piece of art we have largely seen before. The cast – although star-studded – is relatively small, which – again – makes the movie feel like a play (minus the live energy). Bottom line: Those who have seen good stage adaptations have seen superior work, and those who have never seen the play should prioritize a theatrical experience over watching this film.


Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, Highbrow Magazine’s chief film critic, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico.


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