Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth Is an Audacious Formal Experiment that Eschews Realism for Style, Film Companion

Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Cavel
Cinematography: 
Bruno Delbonnel
Editors:
Joel Coen, Lucian Johnston

Streaming on: AppleTV+

And with The Tragedy of Macbeth, I’ve seen my third Macbeth adaptation in the last 10 months – the other two being Indian: the Malayalam film Joji and the Bengali web series Mandaar. (Something about the gloom of a global pandemic has percolated into the films, although The Tragedy of Macbeth was already in works before Covid). Joel Coen’s film walks in a different direction from not just Joji and Mandaar but most film adaptations. Instead of making it lifelike and realistic by transposing the story to a local geographical setting and a community, The Tragedy of Macbeth exists in a nightmarish dreamscape which serves to reflect the characters’ psychology and little else. “So foul and fair a day I’ve not seen’, says Banquo to Macbeth as the silhouette of two men walk into the frame through mist. When they speak to the witch, and the witch to them, the camera holds their individual faces in close ups against a grey-white background. By isolating the subject from the background, the shots take subjectivity to an extreme.

The faces are lit in stark, expressionistic lighting like that in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – which, it turns out, served as a reference point for Coen, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis), and production designer Stefan Dechant, among other black and white, German Expressionistic films. The black and white photography – enhanced further by the black and white actors in the cast whose skin tones produce different results – operates in smoke and shadows amplified by sets built in a sound stage in Los Angeles.

The result is a film that’s emotionally muted but a triumph of pared down, severe style – an audacious formal experiment that makes difficult, confounding choices like making its characters speak in the high-flown Shakespearean English as he had written it in the play.

Watching Macbeth is watching the inevitable unfold. You know the major events, you know the turning points and premonitions. Coen’s adaptation is as faithful to the text as it gets – he has said that the idea of the film was to take the audience as close to the experience of watching the play as possible, in cinematic terms. The result is a film that’s emotionally muted but a triumph of pared down, severe style – an audacious formal experiment that makes difficult, confounding choices like making its characters speak in the high-flown Shakespearean English as he had written it in the play. Even though the content of the dialogue is heavy and theatrical, the delivery is filmic – soft, subdued. Coen doesn’t want us to lose out on the poetry of the language, so he retains it. But the non-theatrical delivery of theatrical dialogue creates dissonance that is a distraction at first, before you get used to its queer musicality. 

Coen got initiated into the project on the insistence of his wife and actress Frances Mcdormand, who would play Lady Macbeth. That brought about one of the few changes made to the original story, in which Macbeth and his wife are young and newly married. The Tragedy of Macbeth, instead, sees Denzel Washington and Mcdormand as a middle-aged couple who are still childless. Washington starts wise and quickly devolves into a fool, and the horror on Mcdormand’s face during his public slip-ups have a seriocomic touch. Kathryn Hunter leaves a strong impression as all of the witches. It’s a superbly physical performance – in a display of a rigorous theatrical expertise, she twists her body, flapping her hands like a raven’s wings when we first meet her on the beach. As she stands near a puddle and utters her prophecies to Banquo and Macbeth, the reflection shows two of her – that makes them three.

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