For his first solo directorial effort, Joel Coen turns to “the Scottish play,” a.k.a. The Tragedy of Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s enduring tale of power run amok. The resulting film is, for better and worse, and despite the absence of his brother Ethan, a pure Coen concoction. This is evident from the vertiginous opening shot, in which three ominous black birds fly across a stark white background, all sense of grounding and perspective obliterated. In this moment, you may wonder if we’re looking up, down, or merely gazing, as so many of the play’s characters do, into an abstract void of horrors.
One would expect an abyss of this sort to be all-consuming darkness. Instead, Coen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, shooting in a square aspect ratio and superbly tenebrous black and white, visualize it as a chasm of bright light that resembles nothing less than a blank canvas. The arc of Shakespeare’s tragedy may be well known, but in these introductory moments, anything seems possible. That feeling continues through the stage-setting scene of King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and his men at arms rejoicing in their latest victory, and it reaches an apex with the introduction of the more foul than fair Weïrd Sisters.
In a brilliant stroke, the trio of prophetic witches are all played by Kathryn Hunter, who contorts her body and distorts her voice in terrifying fashion, and initially seems to be a lone madwoman wandering a former battlefield. Only when our antiheroic lead, Macbeth (Denzel Washington), saunters in from the foggy edges of the frame with the doomed Banquo (Bertie Carvel) by his side does she become three—via a striking image in which shadowy reflections in a pool of water materialize into the other two sisters. It’s also at this through-the-looking-glass moment that the limitations of Coen’s adaptation begin to show themselves.
It’s hard to take issue with The Tragedy of Macbeth’s visuals, which, in addition to Delbonnel’s consistently stellar compositions, include Stefan Dechant’s production design. The latter is a marvel of suggestively simple architecture, built on a soundstage, that hearkens back to any number of German Expressionist classics. And the text itself is, of course, a wonder, with all of Macbeth’s iconic exchanges intact, from “something wicked this way comes,” to “out, damned, spot,” to “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” More often than not, Coen has nipped and tucked scenes from within rather than excising them whole.
The rub, in the end, comes down to the pairing of Washington and Frances McDormand, the latter playing the lunatic Lady Macbeth. Both actors are older than typical for their roles, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. When the pair plot King Duncan’s murder in the early scenes, the idea that the Macbeths have been passed over for advancement, time and time again, resonates that much more powerfully because of their evident world-weariness. Yet what’s absent is the compulsive carnality that drives them both—the murderous lust for power that dovetails with their lust for each other, and which proves their mutual undoing.
Washington and McDormand have both played Shakespeare before. In this context, though, they come off as prose performers colorlessly reciting poetry. The words tumble out of their mouths with a pleasing rhythm but also with a distinct lack of revelation. Equally odd, this gore-strewn political fable has surprisingly little resonance with our current moment, if indeed any moment. (This is perhaps the price of setting your film in what amounts to an impressionistic vacuum.) Even as the malevolent spirits come to collect, and the exiled Macduff (Corey Hawkins) and Malcolm (Harry Melling) rally to bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, there’s a stolid emptiness where the rousingly trenchant insights should be.
Still, Coen’s adeptness at picking the perfect supporting actor for the smallest role is fully evident, from that go-to medievalist Ralph Ineson as the Captain who heralds Macbeth’s heroism to Duncan, to Jacob McCarthy as the pasty messenger whom Macbeth berates when his castle comes under siege. And then there’s the inimitable Stephen Root as the Porter, a single-scene comic-relief character who steals the film as he hilariously rambles about the deleterious effects of alcohol on the libido: “Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” Another of his lines, “I pray you, remember the porter,” aptly sums up the successes and failures of this Macbeth, considering that what’s most memorable about the film tends to be on the periphery of the frame.
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