The Tragedy of Macbeth
Dir: Joel Coen
Scr: Joel Coen
Phot: Bruno Delbonnel
Ed: Joel Coen, Lucian Johnston
Premiere: Jan. 14, 2022
But it’s not easy. To get the most out of him, it’s best to study him a little, something few seem to have the time for these days. A pity, for he is infinitely rewarding to patient fans.
Ihave seen more Macbeths than you can shake a stick at, if that’s your idea of a good time. Joel Coen’s new version of Shakespeare’s tragedy is intriguing, but so impeccably crafted and restrained that it drains away the vital energy that drives this, one of Shakespeare’s most violent (and quotable) plays.
So what’s the story? What makes this play such a difficult endeavor? It is steeped in forces of dark magic, for one thing. Three witches tell the Scottish chieftain Macbeth that he is soon to become king, and that his friend Banquo will sire a line of kings. As Duncan is already on the throne, this presents a problem. Macbeth tells of the witches to his equally ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, and the two plot to murder Duncan, throw suspicion on Duncan’s sons, and lay claim to the crown themselves.
Coen seals the action in the studio, and all characters appear from and disappear into a gray mist. The monochrome approach, and Bruno Delbonnel’s artful cinematography, gives us a movie that looks like an album of 19th century engravings. Coen’s adaptation streamlines the story, but carefully ensures that the viewer is never lost in the story.
Kathryn Hunter plays all of the three witches; her sinister croak and splayed limbs give a rough foretaste of doom. The rest of the cast is solid, and includes Brendan Gleeson as an affable Duncan. But the film lives or dies on the performances of its two leads. Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are a conundrum.
The dynamics the would-be royal couple move through are extreme. Lady Macbeth disintegrates into madness, and Macbeth moves away from weakness and uncertainty, clinging to his doom ever more stubbornly as the acts progress. But these are assured, sedate interpretations, a middle-aged pair of Macbeths. They do not seem to be descending into evil or madness; they seem instead to be making an increasingly bad series of business decisions. It is easy to go over the top acting-wise in “Macbeth,” with its multiplicity of horrors to enact. However, the maturity and restraint the two leads display tamp down the manic edge that animates the story. These Macbeths are too mundane to matter.
Filming Shakespeare is tough. It’s very easy to slip into dutiful versions that dull the mind instead of inspiring. Coen’s effort here is an honorable slog.