By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/27/21 – Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth arrived in selected theatres December 26 and will become available for streaming on January 14 on Apple TV+. Filmed in black-and-white with traditional 4:3 screen format, this Macbeth represents Joel Coen’s attempt to move from black comedy into super-serious social drama. Macbeth is a ready-made showcase for inspired actors and Coen’s cast is filled with some of the best. Denzel Washington, as Macbeth, and Frances McDormand, as Lady Macbeth, fit their performances to the movie’s narrow view of Shakespearean cinema, which reduces poetic grandeur to petulance and German Expressionist production design. Joel Coen sets out to normalize Shakespearean language, but he ends up going too far. His actors speak in conversational voices that, in spurning theatricality, also leave out nuanced expression. And Coen films them as if frozen in place without any naturalistic movement. They utter their lines staring straight ahead as he frames them with frontal blandness.
Since The Scottish Play was first performed 415 years ago, all spoiler warnings have expired. Besides, you should know the plot already. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and Macbeth (Denzel Washington), the Thane of Glamis, meet three witches (all played by Kathryn Hunter) on his way back from battle. They prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland. But first, he’ll become the Thane of Cawdor. When that part of the prediction becomes true, Macbeth thinks these medieval witches might be onto something. Though he believes chance will crown him without his stir, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) goads him to intervene. As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage will be littered with dead bodies by the final curtain, each of whom will have screamed out “I am slain!” or “I am dead!” before expiring. Coen leaves that feature out of the movie, as you can see quite graphically how dead the bodies get on the screen.
McDormand is of course Lady Macbeth here, a role she was born to play, bringing a hard-won domestic authority and her own sort of military determination to the plan to kill King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). Macbeth is Denzel Washington, who portrays the Thane of Glamis as already exhausted by his great triumph in the King’s cause at the very beginning, a moment at which he might be expected to look forward to retirement. Washington’s signature rolling swagger looks careworn, but his Macbeth submits to both the duplicitous supernatural promises and his wife’s demands like a soldier taking his orders. And then, angry and paranoid, he escalates his fanatical rule with a series of pre-emptive murders while McDormand’s Lady Macbeth retreats into horror and despair.
King Duncan’s murder is especially rough. Washington and Gleeson play it as a macabre dance, framed so tightly that we feel the intimacy of how close one must be to stab another. It’s almost sexual. Both actors give off a regal air in their other scenes, though Washington’s is buoyed by his patented swagger. Gleeson brings the Old Vic to his brief performance; every line and every moment feels like he’s communing with the ghosts of the famous actors who graced that hallowed London stage. This Macbeth is as much about mood as it is about verse. The visuals acknowledge this, pulling us into the action as if we were seeing it on stage. But nowhere is the evocation of mood more prominent than in Kathryn Hunter’s revelatory performance as the Witches. There’s an other worldliness to her appearance and her voice, as if she came from a dark place Macbeth should fear. You will have a hard time forgetting her work. She’s fantastic here, and Coen’s depiction of her cauldron bubbling is a highlight, as is the narrow staging of Macbeth’s final battle.
The spare, stark sets and artificial, high-contrast lighting dominant the scenes and often dwarf the characters. The German Expressionist effects of shadow and light become more important the words of the actors, as we get lost in the sharp lines, sharp edges, plain walls, high loops, and bright unnatural vistas. However, this is not Dreyer or early Bergman. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is pellucid and austere and Stefan Dechant’s magnificent production design imagines Macbeth’s castle as a giant, rectilinear modernist house imagined by de Chirico, with chilly courtyards bounded by vast vertiginous walls and corridors that extend like some sort of open-plan death row. Disturbingly, there is no sense of what it looks like from the outside: We are always within its Escher-like weirdness, with battlements that can extend infinitely into the fog.
The drama that one expects between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seems muted. They occupy the same room and the same space but not the same movie. McDormand isn’t guided to display a sufficiently ruthless temperament; her performance lacks command, urgency, rage, and madness. This Lady Macbeth is never as strong as when she orders subordinates about, and her mad scene comes off as an actor’s exercise. Washington seems to scale down his own performance to match. His calm, magisterial authority pervades the film from beginning to end, but he’s largely stuck in place as rigidly as the other actors.
The intellectual framework within which the movie is set is similarly insubstantial. Coen reconceives Macbeth as a stereotypical indie relationship drama, rather than a symphony of voices or a chamber work of contrapuntal dialectic. The highlights of the film are the ones that most resemble conventional action sequences, but ones with piquant touches of staging, as when Macbeth duels with Siward (Richard Short) before murdering him with an offhand gesture. The climactic confrontation of Macbeth and Macduff, which takes place not on a battlefield but on a high and narrow walkway, is juiced with a combination of dramatic passion and martial precision. It falls apart, though, with a flourish of eye-rolling vulgarity, when Macduff slashes off Macbeth’s head and the dying king’s crown goes flying through the air in slow motion.
Coen doesn’t make meaningful use of silences, gazes, pauses – and perhaps that is because he is not a stage director with experience directing Shakespeare. He doesn’t conjure a teeming realm of battles and intrigues. His Macbeth is rattled-off Shakespeare with the rhetoric toned down and the classical references pruned so as not to send viewers scurrying to their footnotes. It’s a neat and clean medieval drama, a sanitized Macbeth in which the absence of ornament and tangle, the sharp and rational focus on clear action, is the mark of rigorous earnestness. Yet Coen’s straining for seriousness and yearning for importance breaks through to the other side with the howlers of unintentional comedy.