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Non-Review Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

There is something inherently cinematic about Macbeth.

More than the other three of Shakespeare’s “big four” tragedies, Macbeth is a movie that lends itself to bold cinematic adaptations. To be fair, there are great cinematic adaptations of Hamlet and King Lear, but there don’t seem to be quite as many of them that linger in the consciousness. It’s interesting to wonder why cinema seems to be such a perfect form for this Jacobean tragecy. Maybe it’s the overt supernatural elements, or the grim setting, the intersection of stark morality and brutal violence. It might even be uncanny imagery suggested by the dialogue. Perhaps it’s all of these. Perhaps it is none of them.

Black and white morality.

Whatever the reason, from straight adaptations like those of Orson Welles through to Justin Kurzel and more abstract interpretations like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Shakespeare’s historical tragedy is one that really pops within these heightened and formalist adaptations. It helps that the play works in any number of registers: as tragedy, as horror, as drama, as morality play. Indeed, in the context of The Tragedy of Macbeth, it’s tempting to argue that Macbeth fits surprisingly well within the Coen Brothers’ larger filmography of inept and over-confident criminals undermined by their own incompetence.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a worth addition to both this list of impressive adaptations and the filmography of director Joel Coen.

A doorway to madness…

The best and worst thing that can be said about The Tragedy of Macbeth is that it feels like a formalist experiment for director Joel Coen. The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the first time that Joel has struck out on his own, following the retirement of his brother Ethan. It feels very much like Joel Coen striking out on his own. The director has been candid that The Tragedy of Macbeth is a project that the Coens would never have made as a pair. Joel explained, “If I was working with Ethan I wouldn’t have done Macbeth, it would not be interesting to him.”

The separation of Joel and Ethan Coen evokes the similar dissolution of the partnership between Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Of course, Ethan Coen is retired while Lilly Wachowski continues to work on her own projects. Still, this makes Joel Coen’s work on The Tragedy of Macbeth an interesting counterpoint to Lana Wachowski’s direction of The Matrix Resurrections. In many ways, The Matrix Resurrections felt like Lana asserting a personal ownership of earlier collaborations. It felt like an attempt by Lana to reclaim something she had created with her sister, to prevent it from being turned into something anonymous or indistinct.

Pooling their resources.

In contrast, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like Joel Coen making a more aggressive effort to stand apart from his previous shared body of work, striking out on his own. While there are obvious points of overlap between The Tragedy of Macbeth and earlier Coen Brothers films, most notably in a cast that includes returning Coen Brothers players like Frances McDormand, Stephen Root and Harry Melling, it also stands quite apart. Its closest relatives in the Coen Brothers canon are more stylised films like The Man Who Wasn’t There or even Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it still feels worlds apart.

In some ways, this feels like Joel Coen engineering a directorial showcase for his first solo film. After all, adapting a Shakespearean tragedy does a lot to displace any emphasis on the script. The Coen Brothers have historically been defined in part by their own writing and scripting. Characters in Coen Brothers movies often talk in a very heightened and stylised manner, with their dialect and their rhythms becoming part of the larger brothers’ larger sensibility.

The (Mac)beth of us can fall…

The Coens have rarely been interested in direct adaptations, although it is interesting that their two most obvious adaptations – No Country for Old Men and The Ladykillers – are films that are often positioned at opposite ends of qualitative appraisals of the pair’s filmography. More often than not, the Coens have incorporated their influences as pastiche, as with Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is a particularly literal adaptation of The Odyssey, and that it hasn’t been filtered through the pair’s unique aesthetic.

To be fair, Coen does make some changes to the text in The Tragedy of Macbeth. The film assumes some passing familiarity with the source material, and so moves more briskly than many stage adaptations. Like many directors adapting Shakespeare, Coen clearly brings his own perspective and emphasis to the finished project. It is clear that this is a very particular interpretation of the source material. Still, the use of the Shakespearean text serves to foreground Coen’s directorial flourishes.

Down the darker path…

Similarly, Coen stacks the cast. The performances are spectacular. Denzel Washington is somehow both the one of the biggest movie stars in the world and one of the finest theatre actors, and his later career has seen the actor trying to integrate those twin passions through projects like Fences and his producing credit on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Frances McDormand remains one of the greatest living actors working today. It’s notable that her recent Academy Award wins for both Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Nomadland feel like an earned victory lap on a tremendous career.

The film’s supporting cast is saturated with incredibly talented players. Even the smaller parts become showcases for talent both old and new: Brendan Gleeson as Duncan, Kathryn Hunter as the Weird Sisters, Corey Hawkins as Macduff. Many of the text’s smaller roles are fleshed out by scene-stealing character actors. Ralph Ineson plays the anonymous soldier tasked with expositing the opening battle, while Stephen Root plays the drunken porter who offers some much needed comic levity in an otherwise dour text.

Bewitching…

Given the timeless source material and the incredibly talented cast, it says something very revealing (and very flattering) about The Tragedy of Macbeth that somehow the film’s imagery, atmosphere and mood are what truly linger. The Tragedy of Macbeth plays as a love letter to German Expressionism, with its black-and-white cinematography, its old academy ratio, its cavernous and empty sets, its shadows and its staircases, its stark light and deep shadows. Many of the film’s visuals are truly haunting, sticking in the memory.

The movie’s imagery is genuinely breathtaking; Bruno Delbonnel‘s cinematography is beautiful, Stefan Dechant‘s production design is evocative, Mary Zophres‘ costuming is stunning. Befitting the source material, The Tragedy of Macbeth has the texture of an oppressive and suffocating nightmare: long shadows stretched across white floors, warped reflections in pools of water, canted angles, lone figures standing atop towering cliffs. It is a vibe. It is madness. It is horror, in its most abstract manner.

“What light through yonder window breaks!”

And yet, for all this classicism and formalism, there is something undeniably and inescapably modern working its way through this reimagining of Macbeth. This is a play that understandably resonates in troubled political times. It is, after all, the tale of a kingdom embroiled in chaos and disorder, with the natural order upended and world itself seeming to react against that disruption. Macbeth is a play about a world that has fundamentally gone wrong, in ways that are both moral and spiritual.

As such, it’s not hard to make the connection to recent political and moral unrest. The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a film that is in some ways working through the general mood of the era in which it exists, manifesting it as if by madness. This is a tale of a mad tyrant tearing a nation apart, even before Coen chose to frame it in the cinematic language of the doomed Weimar Republic. German Expressionism has been read, at least in part, as a manifestation of deep-seated anxieties simmering through the unconscious of a nation on the verge of collapsing into fascism. It’s a strong choice for a story like this.

Fog of war.

In this sense, it is perhaps notable that Coen’s most dramatic shift from traditional staging is the presentation of Alex Hassell as Ross. As a play, Macbeth is traditionally framed in stark moral contrast. The tale is, appropriately enough, a sort of black and white morality. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Ross becomes a more ambiguous and ominous figure than he has tended to be in other adaptations. This shifting characterisation is perhaps another concession to modernity; monsters exist, but so to do serpents.

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