Hail to the King – The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Let me start by thanking each and every one of you that took the time to visit this little website in 2021. This past year was the best yet, in terms of readership, more than doubling the previous year and I couldn’t do that without you. I started this website because I love film and filmmaking, and I love sharing that with others. I continue to do this for those of you who love it too or are just out there looking for interesting things to watch and I look forward to an even better 2022. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you! On with the show.

Joel Coen’s version of William Shakespeare’s classic play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is an ambitious grappling match between a career’s worth of comedic filmmaking and squeezing the iconic source material into a Hollywood box.  

The three Witches of the prophecy meet Macbeth on the battlefield

The Scottish general Macbeth is told a prophecy by three witches, that he is to become the King of Scotland and, after many years of service to the crown, he feels enough entitlement that he slays the king and embarks on a homicidal descent into madness. 

The three Witches continue their torment

I have never been a big fan of Shakespeare, so I don’t have any loyalty to the source material but I have begun to appreciate live performances of his plays more as I’ve gotten older. That said, I have been a fan of Coen’s for many years so I was certainly was curious to see how it was going to come together, especially since this was the first time Joel has stepped away to do a solo project without his brother and co-director, Ethan.

Joel Coen on one of his beautiful sets with wife Frances McDormand

I will preface this by saying that I did, in fact, enjoy the film. However, it feels a bit stuck between its desire to be a robust Hollywood production and a stage performance that’s been filmed. Stefan Dechant’s production design is exceptional, with magnificent grandiose sets that create sharp angles and shadows to mirror the tone of the play itself, and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography uses those sets brilliantly to craft stunning imagery that guides the eye. Shot in black-and-white with a classic 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in which Coen aims to command reverence, the visual aesthetic is undoubtedly powerful but often swallows the performances. The end result is more old Hollywood than it is Shakespeare and that’s a challenge for the A-list actors tasked with telling this story.

Denzel Washington plays the eponymous Macbeth with the flair that has defined his venerable career juxtaposed by flights of fancy that border on comedy. It’s an interesting portrayal at this stage in the career of the 66-year-old Oscar-winner but he’s undeniably watchable and unequivocally Denzel. His opposite number, Lady Macbeth, is played by Coen’s wife and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand. While she is certainly a fantastic performer, I found the turn stiff and similarly limited by her casting. Both her and Washington are (perhaps unfairly) burdened with separating themselves from their characters in a way that the rest of the cast isn’t faced with. They are both skilled performers, but despite their gravitas, the chemistry between them is almost non-existent and it reinforces seeing them as performers rather than their characters. 

Kathryn Hunter steals every scene she’s in

In turn, there were a number of excellent performances from those not bound by their fame. At the top of that list is Kathryn Hunter who turns in a magnificent performance as the Witches/Old Man. It was a very physical role to play and, my goodness, she’s absolutely magnetic and should be considered for Best Supporting. Alex Hassell is captivating as Ross and delivers several of the most emotionally trying scenes. Corey Hawkins makes for a great Macduff, growing in the shadow of the new king. And then there’s Stephen Root. He is not in the film that much, but he is phenomenal as Porter. 

Stefan Dechant made captured the desolate tone of Macbeth’s Scotland

There was obviously a lot of buzz connected with this project within the industry. Its visually arresting style makes for quite a viewing experience and commands your attention. I don’t have it inside my Top-10 films of the year but it’s not far off and still worth seeing, especially for fans of Shakespeare or Joel Coen.

Recommendation: See it for its ambition in bringing the stage to screen, the remarkable set pieces, and a number of excellent performances. You can probably wait for it to hit Apple TV+ as it’s fairly limited in theaters.

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