The Reel Review


Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand star in writer/director Joel Coen’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s iconic play, about a power-hungry Scottish lord who is convinced by a trio of witches that he will be the next king of Scotland. Macbeth and his ambitious wife decide they will do anything, including murder, to make that happen.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth

Filmed in monochromatic black and white, with a surrealist palette of squawking ravens, harshly lit geometric shapes and minimalist, post-modern set design, it is the distinctive, stark cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour) that is the real star of Oscar-winner Coen’s first film directed without his brother Ethan (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). Visually, The Tragedy of Macbeth is spectacular.

Contortionist Kathryn Hunter as the three witches in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

But impressive visuals can only go far. Coen’s stripped-down screenplay lacks depth and nuance. And as Macbeth, Washington looks more focused on getting his stilted Shakespearean dialogue right than he is in inhabiting his ill-fated character. He possesses minimal onscreen chemistry with McDormand, who otherwise shines as the other half of the duplicitous couple who, prior to her own descent into madness, realizes her husband is a less-than-capable schemer. For true Shakespeare fans, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a bit of a bore.


Joel Coen and Frances McDormand have been married since 1984. They have one son, Pedro.

• The Tragedy of Macbeth is the first film Joel Coen has directed without his brother Ethan, who for now, is taking a break from movies to focus on other projects, like stage plays. This film is Joel’s ninth collaboration with his multi-Oscar-winning wife, Frances McDormand (Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Nomadland).

• With the exception of the final scene, filming took place on a soundstage over 36 days, most it completed after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Production designer Stefan Dechant (Alice in Wonderland, Avatar) designed sets using 3-D computer modeling, which enabled Coen and cinematographer Delbonnel to work out camera angles and movements prior to their construction.

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