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No production of a Shakespeare play is perfect, and that goes for both film and stage. As someone who teaches Shakespeare, I can almost always find nits to pick in a production as well as aspects to appreciate: a great acting performance, a question the play raises that gets answered in some innovative way, and if all else fails, a cool costume or two. Obviously, some productions succeed overall better than others, but as I tell my students, every production is useful somehow in illuminating a play.
All this to say: I found Joel Cohen’s new film version of Macbeth ultimately disappointing. As a film, it’s a skilled, maybe even exquisite art piece. But it failed to draw me in. It struck me as an art piece about the play Macbeth more than a performance of the play. When the tragedy part gets lost in the shuffle, all you have left are lights and shadows.
As reviewers note, with The Tragedy of Macbeth Coen has attempted to create a work in the tradition of German expressionist cinema and Orson Wellesian creepiness. For that, Macbeth makes a good script choice, with its famously macabre witches, hallucinations, and psychological torments. Coen filmed in black and white, drawing on the talents of set designer Stefan Dechant and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to create abstracted settings, devoid of the lushly damp shagginess of the Scottish landscape or the typical gold-trimmed drapings in castle interiors. Instead, we have barren landscapes and stark, clean interiors, all angles and planes and claustrophobia-inducing corridors. Every shot creates a striking composition, casting sharp shadows on the set’s geometric forms or painting in a palette of grays. Visually, the film is quite stunning. (Though one reviewer found it all rather gimmicky.)
Fitting to this style, Coen has reduced the atmospheric elements in the play’s text to a bare, “daggers of the mind” psychology, which I can appreciate. Motifs of knocking, loud footsteps on stairways, and incessant dripping (blood, water) fit the play’s sense of steadily approaching doom. The text also creates atmosphere with multiple references to creatures, especially birds, but in this film Scotland seems a barren wasteland inhabited only by crows (and/or ravens? Corvidae experts, please weigh in), who whirl and circle in and out of scenes, carrying in their cawing and screeching all the play’s allusions to the supernatural. It’s an obvious cinematic ploy, but well executed, especially in the Banquo’s ghost scene, where Macbeth raves about Banquo haunting him, but all we see are three wayward corvids, dive-bombing him in an empty room.
While I enjoyed the film noir approach to Macbeth, what failed for me, I’m sorry to say, were the performances of the two leads, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. I couldn’t figure out why Coen cast these two, and then I learned that Coen is married to Frances McDormand. Ah. But sadly, both these actors—in their 60s—are, in my opinion, too old for these roles.
When Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth, admiringly, “Bring forth men children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males,” the lines feel nonsensical unless we can imagine these two clinging to hope that they can still supply their own missing heir. We know they’ve had a child who died: “I have given suck,” says Lady M, though her next lines reveal an ominous lack of maternal compassion. In my view, the couple’s desperation to gain power should be driven by their knowledge that they are in their prime but not for much longer—else why bother with their murderous plots? Dynasty is everything. This is why the prophecy that Banquo shall “get kings” so galls Macbeth; this is why the play is so obsessed with young boys.
Well, I could overlook the more “mature” casting if the portrayals of the characters drew me in. When I teach this play, I remind my students that according to Aristotle, tragedies are supposed to evoke pity and fear in the audience. Aristotle was right that as an audience, we need to find the main character somehow admirable or impressive—we need to believe the tragic hero starts out with some nobility, falls, and takes others down with him. Hence the tragedy. This dynamic leads to one of the crucial challenges in producing Macbeth: how to make the audience connect with this guy and admire him, at least somewhat, before he starts murdering people in Act 2? If we don’t establish connection and admiration early on–perhaps for his eloquent parsing of moral dilemmas?–we remain detached from the play as simply a clinical demonstration of how bad men get badder.
Unfortunately, Washington’s portrayal in the opening scenes is so low-key as to be boring. Before Macbeth even appears, we learn from the report of a captain that Macbeth is an aggressive, fearless, even ruthless warrior, who is not afraid to “unseam” a traitor “from the nave to th’ chops.” One of the questions the play considers is whether warriors make good kings. But when Washington’s Macbeth turns up, he’s neither warrior-like nor kingly. He appears bland, avuncular, casual, as if he’s mostly uninterested in anyone’s business, including his own.
McDormand, too, in the opening scenes—even in the fabulous “unsex me here” speech, alas—lacks energy or even intensity. Both Washington and McDormand deliver their lines as murmuring recitation, brushing over key words, blurting out whole speeches without any thoughtful pacing or emphasis. Are they thinking about what they’re saying? Are these characters grappling with the horror of what they’re about to do, either with hesitation or relish? Nah. They’re just saying lines.
Maybe Coen was going for some kind of concentrated interiority from his leads or something, but the result is: I don’t care about these characters. It’s true that both actors offer more dynamism and range in later scenes. In fact, one reviewer praises Washington’s arc from “weary, diffident soldier to raving, self-immolating maniac” as “astonishing to behold.” For me, while the later scenes were surely more interesting, by then it was too late. If we don’t find these people deliciously fascinating from the beginning, we can’t recover that loss when they start raving and hallucinating.
The lead performances feel even more dead-in-the-water in contrast with the excellent work from the rest of the cast. Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel), like many in more minor roles, know how to turn Shakespeare’s lines into the speech of a character who is thinking about what they’re saying, processing thoughts even as the words spool out in iambic pentameter. Even the young fellows who play Macduff’s son and Banquo’s son do a great job. As for Malcolm, the rightful heir to Scotland’s throne—the one who, along with Macduff, provides a contrast to what we might call the toxic masculinity in the play—I wondered at first why I felt uneasy about his casting. And then I realized he’s played by Harry Melling, who played Dudley in the Harry Potter films. Well, good for him, finding his way beyond that role.
Despite the problems at the center of the film, there are some clever innovations around the edges. For instance, the witches, who represent another tricky problem a director must solve. How to portray them without being cheesy and cliché? Coen has the brilliant Kathryn Hunter playing all three witches as one bizarre, Gollum-like contortionist who limns realities. She’s one person, she’s three people, she’s real, she’s only reflected in the glassy surface of a pool, she’s human, she’s a crow—or three crows—or maybe just a figment of imagination? Thanks to Hunter’s riveting physicality and some nimbly rendered camera work, the witch scenes are among the best elements of the film, and well worth seeing.
Another clever innovation in the film: Ross. Who, you say? Exactly. Ross is one of those random retainer-type guys who stand around in court scenes, advising the king and ferrying messages. He isn’t nameless in the play, but he might as well be, at least on the page. In this production, though, Ross becomes almost the main character. He’s in scenes where the text does not call for him, overhearing things, watching for opportunity, creeping through the play with an enigmatic purposefulness. What is he up to? Who is this guy? I won’t give away my theory, but if you watch this film, keep an eye on the tall, slim fellow in what looks like a monk’s cowl. He’s a possible answer to some of the play’s perennial mysteries.
I’ll be glad to recommend this film to my students, because, as I say, even a production’s shortcomings can be pedagogically useful. This one offers some remarkable artistry and cleverness, while also clarifying that tragedy, at its center, only works when it draws us irresistibly into the bewildering mixture of light and shadow that composes the human spirit.