The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth ★★★★½

The miracle of The Tragedy of Macbeth is how simultaneously theatrical and cinematic it looks and feels. Shot in black-and-white on the classic 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, the film drops us straight into a realm that revels in the uncanny and otherworldly. Fog and smoke obscure the landscape, the light casts harsh shadows, and the architecture and scenery look more like silhouettes than they do sets. The opening shots are preceded with a block of text reading ‘WHEN’, the very first word spoken in the text, reading like an open-ended place-marker for a setting divorced from any time or place (Rod Serling would be proud).

The world of The Tragedy of Macbeth feels almost like purgatory, an ethereal plane where lost souls wander about aimlessly for eternity. There’s an unmistakable Ingmar Bergman quality to the design and cinematography, but Coen owes more to the silent films of German directors Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang. The oppressive lighting, the discordant score, the jagged landscape, these all scream of 1920s expressionism and do wonders to evoke the levels of foreboding, claustrophobia, and despondency.

The sets, stark in their minimal use of detail and which seem to melt and fade into each when the film transitions from one scene to the next, achieves the same effect whilst also allowing for the theatrical elements to creep in. The theatrical qualities that often feel so unnatural in a film, characters suddenly entering and exiting scenes, dialogue-heavy interactions on static sets, the restrainedly choreographed set-pieces, they work when played out in a setting that is so deliberately designed to be unnatural. There is beauty in that artificiality, as in the night sky overhead that is obviously fake yet so entrancing to look at, and horror.

A key component of what makes this cinematically theatrical effect work so remarkably well is the cast, made up of an ensemble of actors who have made their names both on screen and on stage. Leading them are Denzel Washington and Frances ‘fucking’ McDormand. They both understand what works when playing for the camera and when playing for the back seats, and here they bring the best of both worlds. Both can play loudly ferocious and tacitly fragile, and everything in between, depending on what is called for and they deliver the iambic pentameter of the Bard’s verse so naturally, it sounds like they’ve been speaking it their entire lives (which, in McDormand’s case, she sort of has, having ‘played’ Lady Macbeth before at fourteen). 

Both are also older than actors in these roles typically tend to be, giving them room to add their own unique touches to the characters. Washington’s seniority brings with it a level of world-weariness that only comes with age; he has the air of a veteran soldier who has been fighting and killing for so long that it has come to be all he knows. McDormand meanwhile brings an element of desperation to her Lady Macbeth’s ambition, that of an aged aspirant grasping for power that has long eluded her.

My favourite though was Kathryn Hunter in a croaking, contortionist turn as the three witches who prophesy Macbeth’s ascension and doom. A shapeshifter and fell presence who twisted movements and deep, booming voice are as sinister as her nature and motivations are unknowable, hers is the first character we meet and it is Hunter who does more than any other performer to bring this world of deathly night and dark magic to life. When she speaks to herself in her gaunt form, manifests before Macbeth as a trio of shrouded figures reflected in water, or appears later in a fourth role, Hunter’s physicality and presence is utterly captivating. ‘Best Supporting Actress’ worthy, IMO.

All in all, it makes for a particularly bleak take on Macbeth. When the Weird Sisters appear before the man who would be king and deliver his fortune, the inevitability of the disaster to come is more pronounced than ever before. In a world as nightmarish as this, there is a sense of resignation to Washington’s Macbeth; as much as he craves the power that the prophecy promises, a part of him seems to understand and accept from the start that it can only end in blood. The idea that the witches’ prophecy is a self-fulfilling one and is part of the vicious never-ending cycle that is power, corruption, and violence is made all too apparent, and therein lies the woeful tragedy at the heart of Coen’s film. 

In his first feature without the collaboration of his brother Ethan, it isn’t hard to see what drew Joel to this story. Macbeth’s lament towards the end, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” could almost be a motto for the director. That fatalistic sense of hopelessness and futility is vintage Coen and there’s a poetry to him offering his take on the tale; it accentuates all the more the sense that everything that happens has happened before and will happen again and that all of these fools are eternally doomed to have their yesterdays light their way to dusty death.

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