‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Honors the Noir Feel of The Scottish Play

Joel Coen reimagines Shakespeare’s classic play in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” A noir film featuring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, the film’s December 25 release was highly anticipated after premiering in September as the opening night film of the New York Film Festival. Shot by Bruno Delbonnel, cinematographer of “Amélie” and directed and produced by Joel Coen of “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” this take on The Scottish Play embraces its noir feel and plays into the “tragedy.”

Coen’s directing choices make this movie truly unforgettable. Shot in the academy ratio (1.375:1) and rendered in black and white, this film simultaneously pays homage to an older era of film while branching into something new. The monochromatic cinematography is stunning, and the effect pays off spectacularly, as when devoid of color, the lines between blood and water are blurred. Shadowed figures make for (at times) heavy handed symbolism, but it never feels tiring, nor does it feel like the viewer is being patronized by the film. In fact, it seems this film wants you to think about it in your own way. Much like a staged production might, it wants you to draw your own conclusions. 

Moreover, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” does honor the genuine feel of a stage production of Shakespeare. The sets in the first act feel deliberately artificial, the fog obscuring most of our view into an environment. It never allows us to feel settled, instead imbuing a restless feeling in the viewer. It evokes terror and unease as we watch Macbeth agitate over the prophecies fulfilling, realizing what he must do to become king. That said, the latter acts of the film are somewhat disappointing, set-wise. We move from barren fields and tents to a castle that feels brutalist in style. It is angular, clean, and a little too neat. Some of the horror is unfortunately lost in the meticulousness of the set design here, which perhaps is deliberate, but only felt disappointing. 

The acting, however, makes up for the movie’s shortcomings. Denzel Washington is no stranger to Shakespeare, cast as Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). He depicts Macbeth’s guilt magnificently, slowly losing his moral compass. He allows the viewer to feel what he does, giving the viewer insight into Macbeth’s mind. His soliloquy on the dagger (“Is this a dagger which I see before me…”) is pictured so perfectly, staged so that the “dagger” Macbeth hallucinates is simply the metal door handle of King Duncan’s room. As he speaks to himself, he walks down the hall, growing closer to the bedroom, footsteps on the concrete floor like the rhythm of a heart, pounding faster, beating louder. When he kills Duncan, silent swallows the scene; almost tender, almost intimate. 

Furthermore, Frances McDormand is wonderful as Lady Macbeth. As soon as she is introduced, it’s made very clear to the viewer that she is already descending into madness. As she burns the letter Macbeth has sent her, telling her that he is prophesied to be king, she walks the empty halls of her castle and soliloquizes, saying “yet do I fear thy nature; it is too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.” Much like the play, the film explores femininity and masculinity through Lady Macbeth and her husband, but Joel Coen seems to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions from his film. It’s a curious phenomenon, considering the text is the same, but his directorial touch opens the door to these concepts, and invites the viewer in.

Visually stunning, directorially fluent, and marked by stellar performances, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” stays loyal to an iconic Shakespeare while bringing even more to the table. Regardless of familiarity with or interest in Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a must-watch that will thrill all.

For its stunning cinematography and spectacular performances, “The Tragedy of Macbeth receives a 5/5 stars.