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Review: Coen’s magnificent The Tragedy of MacBeth

by | Jan 22, 2022 | Culture, Spotlight

Sharky (AKA G. Paul Padillo) is a Maineiac from Portland rambling about all things art, and music of every stripe, including rock, progressive, jazz, symphonic, Lieder… and food, too. He writes regularly at Shark on Arts.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Joel Coen’s magnificent adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy will receive nominations for virtually every category in every filmic award.  In truth, it should sweep all of them.

While very much a film, Coen’s Macbeth is simultaneously wholly original, yet also a hybrid combining the best the worlds of cinema and theatre have to offer.  It does not exist in any sort of reality, but (if you’re like me) resembles far more the abstractions of a dream – or nightmare – than places actually seen or visited.  Shot in the Academy frame, entirely in black and white one enters into, from its earliest frames, a world of startling, horrific beauty.  At first, I was reminded of the visual style of Olivier’s Hamlet and other films of that stark mid 20th century style, but Coen actually gives us even less in the way of those ornate and antiquated settings, as his sets and costumes figure into no real sense of history, though have the feel of a story told a thousand or more years ago.

Stefan Dechant’s physical production is amazing. each setting sitting stunningly in every frame.  It is all angles and shadows, rooms that open into forests, bodies of water that appear and vanish as if by sorcery, staircases and halls that stretch on for eternity, mazes of battlements which seem to have no entrance into nor exit from. It is a world that is never really night or ever really day.  Dechant, along with the art and lighting teams. painstakingly painted surfaces, costumes, shadows into the sets, and more to achieve this gloriously ungodly place.  The closest references I can think of are the great silent German expressionist films, and indeed, their influence is strongly felt throughout.  Additionally, I was fascinated to learn they did not use movie lighting, but rather theatre lighting for the entire project.

Initially, I was put off, if only mildly, by the accents – The American actors, notably Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, speak with “American” accents while the U.K. cast speak with their native dialects.  It only took a minute or two to settle in, and that issue was, until now, quickly forgotten.

In the title role, Mr. Washington gives a commanding performance, but several times falls into that Shakespearean trap of rushing words too quickly. I’m not certain what sequence the film was made, but those incidents happen exclusively in the Thane of Cawdor’s opening speeches – then never again.  But I am picking at nits here.  His Macbeth is evil and tragic, a pretender, in that while he believes the witches predictions, he is nonetheless tortured., and elicits a self-doubt which he attempts to eradicate with bravado, a quality that, of course, serves to do him in.

Ms. McDormand is nothing short of miraculous as Lady Macbeth, a scheming, selfish, and brilliant, horror of a woman, cloaked in elegance and poise, while her manipulations of all around her, husband included, cannot disguise her desperate grasp for power. She is the ultimate, self-entitled bitch. McDormand’s appearances find her beautiful, hardened, and finally pitiful. While she holds nothing back throughout, it is in the final, Sleep Walking scene where she weaves together all of the disparate elements of her Lady in the penultimate tragedy of the story.

Together, McDormand and Washington are glorious, beautiful savages, feeding off one another. Having now seen them together, I cannot imagine one’s performance without the other.

Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleason and Harry Melling are all equally excellent as McDuff, Duncan and Malcom.

Alex Hassell’s performance as Ross stands out in a way that makes the role even larger in scope than it feels in the play. Ross’ incredible, flexible face beams out humility, sincerity, rage and evil from one scene to the next.  He’s clearly having a field day (or however long the shooting process was) here, and the payoff is huge.

Playing all three Witches, Kathryn Hunter is entirely terrifying and fascinating in a performance that must be seen to be believed. Each of her appearances as The Weird Sisters is, for anyone familiar with the play, something to anticipate. Her ability to morph into several characters, not to mention maneuvering her body in inhuman ways, is something to behold.  Of this startling performance I will not say more.

Shakespeare’s tale requires an immense supporting cast of some thirty actors, each role weighted with significance, integral and inherently important to the telling of this most nightmarish of tales. In these parts Coen and his creative team have assembled a roster of talent that makes every single one characters pop, coming vividly to life.

Composer, Carter Burwell has worked on a number of Coen family projects, and here aides in setting Macbeth’s tone with his highly atmospheric, but unobtrusive score, never seeking to manipulate the story or us, nor pushing things forward for its own sake, but rather an integral cog in the greater machine.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnell has also worked with the Coen’s before, and his work here offers a perfect example why this guy has been nominated for. and won, a ridiculous number of international film awards. It is spectacular to behold.

Macbeth was my introduction to Shakespeare, I was only six years old and understood little of it, but it scared the living daylights out of me then, and still does over fifty years later.  As a boy, I didn’t know why, but I now I see this is ultimately as much a horror story as it is a tragedy.  It is the story of the way the world was, the way the world became . . . and the way the world remains.

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