A Modern Macbeth

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A tale told by a Coen brother is always something special.

As it opens, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is shrouded in fog. Birds wheel in and out of the clouds, and mountains can be seen dimly in the distance. “When shall we three meet again/ In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” the mist seems to whisper. And then comes the familiar answer: “When the hurly burly’s done / When the battle’s lost and won.” This is a journey poem as much as it is a play, one that takes its protagonist from loyalty to treachery, from clarity to insanity, and from life to death.

Out of the mist a bleeding messenger trudges, focused on delivering news of the war to King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and his son Malcolm (Harry Melling): the battle has been decided in their favor, and “brave Macbeth” (Denzel Washington) has been its hero.

And then, just as suddenly, they are beside her, three tall caped figures whose shoulders creepily rise up into the peaks of demons’ wings, and whose fingers begin to shudder like a thousand rustling feathers.

 

As the wounded messenger collapses, the camera pans up to three black birds circling through the misty clouds above, and the scene changes to Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel), returning from battle. The birds seem to settle into the contorted figure of a Weird Sister (Kathryn Hunter), informing Macbeth and Banquo of their certain futures — Macbeth to “be king hereafter,” and Banquo’s descendants to become kings. Her movements are quick, unsettled, birdlike. Her knees bend unnaturally to touch her nose, and her arms circle her head, disjointing her shoulders. She is all elbows and knees, angles and knobs.

Suddenly she is standing on the shore of a glassy pool, her body forming a tall isosceles triangle, clothed in nunnery black. Wait — aren’t there supposed to be three Weird Sisters? Yes. There they are, two reflections in the pool, not in front of her, but stretching away on either side of her in the water, the three forming an eerie circus pyramid. And then, just as suddenly, they are beside her, three tall caped figures whose shoulders creepily rise up into the peaks of demons’ wings, and whose fingers begin to shudder like a thousand rustling feathers as they approach. And then whoosh! — they fly up in a murder of crows.

This is not just a movie — it is art that moves. And it moves you.

Macbeth is a play about the fall from light into darkness, and Coen expresses it well with his use of black and white film as Macbeth descends from light to dark, from “fair [to] foul.” Sharp shadows make buildings loom large and actors appear small. Macbeth’s angular, monolithic castle, full of foreboding staircases and claustrophobic hallways, symbolize the Macbeths’ monolithic and isolating quest for power. In one scene, Lady Macbeth stands in the distance, on the precipice of a high cliff, while a storm wuthers around her. In another, Macbeth steps into a sharp circle of light, the camera directly above him, spotlighting his crime. Shadows and sharpness were so important to the film that many were painted onto the floor to get them just right.

From ruthless ambition to her downward spiral into madness, the authenticity of McDormand’s gestures, her facial expressions, her spoken inflection — this is how Shakespeare should be performed.

 

All of this gives the medieval story a modern, abstract tone. Director of Photography Bruno Delbonnel said of his decisions, “Black and white becomes abstract and graphic by nature. If the color blue appeared in a scene, it would be more likely to distract from the words of Shakespeare. When that blue tone is merely a shade of gray, the faces are more present. The decision to shoot in Academy aspect ratio [1.37:1] also came from the desire to lose all kinds of ornamentation. . . . When you go in for a close-up, the face is framed with nothing on the right- or left-hand sides.” This is particularly effective in closeups of Frances McDormand, who revels elegantly and rapturously in the role of Lady Macbeth. From ruthless ambition to her downward spiral into madness, the authenticity of McDormand’s gestures, her facial expressions, her spoken inflection — this is how Shakespeare should be performed. Delbonnel captures it all luminously.

Imagery adds to the effect. Duncan’s blood drops heavily onto the floor beside his bed, the scene later mirrored by the water that drops heavily onto the stone floor where Lady Macbeth tries to wash the guilt from her hands. The Weird Sisters roost and cackle in the rafters, dropping “finger of birth-strangled babe” and other foul ingredients into the waters they have conjured onto the floor below. When Macbeth sees the reflection of a young face in this water prophesying indirectly of his fall, he scoops the reflection greedily into his hand, the way one cups water into one’s palm to drink. “Toil and trouble” indeed.

Other scenes are just as daring cinematically, and just as profound. While watching the film I was often reminded of Orson Welles’s revolutionary camera work in Citizen Kane, especially the scene in which the stone fireplace changes from normal size to gigantic as Kane moves around the room — all done simply with the use of perspective and camera position. I also thought of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, with its characters’ descent into madness in a monolithic house beside a dismal lake.

Coen chose to film entirely on a sound stage, with the exception of one brief scene near the end. The set is all shapes and weird angles, and as spare as a Shakespeare script, with no furnishings and few props. This adds to the otherworldly atmosphere and contributes to the rising tension of the play. So does Carter Burwell’s eerie soundtrack. Said Burwell, “Among the ways one might play Macbeth musically are to let the witches run the show, or make Lady Macbeth a bully, or play Macbeth as a blood-thirsty madman. I did none of these in The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Instead, his music emphasizes the mist and mystery of how a man so brave, so loyal, so good, could fall into such murderous paranoia.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, a thrilling, fast-paced story of treachery and betrayal. Coen charges through it too — in just an hour and forty-five minutes. Many characters act as foils, mirroring Macbeth’s choices and demonstrating where other choices might have led him. By the end of the play, none of those who had once called him “brave Macbeth . . . disdaining fortune” (I.ii.18) and “full o’ the milk of human kindness” (I.v.15–16) would still describe him as such. The moment when Macbeth reaches for his unseated crown and determinedly replaces it on his head during his fierce battle with Macduff is a crowning achievement for Coen — the perfect visual metaphor for what happens when the lust for power exceeds even the desire for life.

The set is all shapes and weird angles, and as spare as a Shakespeare script, with no furnishings and few props.

 

Denzel Washington offers a respectable performance as Macbeth; he angers well, and his inflection is fine. But his voice is thin and reedy, without the booming resonance and rich rolling cadence of his fellow thespians. Corey Hawkins, known for his work in TV series such as The Walking Dead and 24 Legacy and movies such as Straight Outta Compton and BlackKklansman, is a revelation as Macduff, so sure and convincing in his role. Another standout is Shakespearean trained Alex Hassell as Macduff’s cousin Ross, whose long, priestly black sleeves resemble the wings of a brooding crow — or a flying nun’s hat. Ross is the last to recognize Macbeth’s treachery and join the army in England that will fight to bring down the self-appointed king.

But no one can top the brilliant Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, captured exquisitely by Delbonnel’s camerawork. She steals the show without once chewing the scenery or even gnashing her teeth. She simply is Lady Macbeth.

Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth (for his name, not Denzel Washington’s, should forever be attached to this version of the play) is a brilliant movie, a piece of art that moves. It will surely move you, as it did me, to shout a stunned “Bravo!” as it ends. Run, don’t walk, to see this film while it is still available in theaters. Or fly there like a murder of crows.

Review of The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen. A24, 2021, 105 minutes.

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