The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Joel Coen | 1hr 45min

In the very first shot of The Tragedy of Macbeth, three ravens soar through a thick, suffocating fog, their dark imprints set against an ethereal shade of grey that we will soon come to know very well. We might initially believe we are looking up at an overcast sky towards a sun just slightly concealed from our view, but then all of a sudden, the clouds part. As we realise that we are looking down from far above the earth, we are hit with a dizzying spell of vertigo. Below, the shrunken figures of two men trudge through a misty wasteland, diminished beneath the black omens of death that circle above, and which will continue to haunt the rest of this film.

As Joel Coen’s first solo film without his brother, Ethan, The Tragedy of Macbeth is also no doubt his most austere. The wit and black comedy often found in even their most serious works like No Country For Old Men is entirely absent, though in its existential questions of destiny, chaos, and violence, Shakespeare’s script also proves itself to be a perfect fit for Coen’s philosophical obsessions. After all, if their primary genre of interest can be described as “crime gone wrong”, then how much more classical can you get than Macbeth? Perhaps then we can single out the severe greyscale cinematography and stark production design as an unusual look for a Coen movie, and indeed this is no doubt his most visually accomplished film to date, but stripped-back simplicity isn’t entirely an entirely new choice for him either.

Joel Coen has made attractive films before, but nothing quite like this. He fills his frames with masses of negative space much like Carl Theodor Dreyer before him – not an influence I would ever think to mention in relation to previous Coen movies.
Unembellished sets melding perfectly with the expressionistic lighting. This beautiful composition of arches and shadows wouldn’t look out of place in a Fritz Lang film from the 1920s or 30s.

With all Coen’s usual artistic trademarks kept in mind, it is unavoidable pointing out how much this breathtakingly bleak take on the Shakespearean tragedy probes entirely new spheres of influence besides the usual film noirs, westerns, and screwball comedies that have made their mark on his oeuvre. Most notably, those grim psychological dramas of Ingmar Bergman appear in Coen’s rigorously precise blocking of his actors, and the Gothic minimalism of Carl Theodor Dreyer announces itself all through the unembellished mise-en-scène.

To draw this line of influence even further back than those mid-century European directors, the magnificently imposing sets that tower around Lord and Lady Macbeth on their rise to power would not look out of place in the expressionistic films of Fritz Lang, especially in the perfectly sculpted architecture of square-cut corners and rounded arches. The sound stages may be evident, but deliberately so, as Coen crafts a geometrically insular world of treachery and insanity ruled by its physical boundaries, further mirrored in the narrowed aspect ratio.

The depth of field in Bruno Delbonnel’s greyscale cinematography is excellent. Here he splits the frame right down the middle with a column to separate King Duncan’s court from Macbeth, who remains foregrounded in the shadows. Extremely rigorous staging.
Perfect symmetry in the lighting and mise-en-scène as Lady Macbeth ascends to power.

There is still little relief to be found in the film’s exteriors of overwhelmingly bleak courtyards and desolate fields, withering like those barren men and women at their centre who are now staring down the ends of their own lives. Behind them, backgrounds fade into a ghostly emptiness and walls of impenetrable fog obscure Macbeth’s vision of what lays ahead. The extreme high and low angles with which Coen captures his actors against canvases of negative space continue to lift this eloquent script beyond the realm of theatre and into something strikingly cinematic, where Macbeth’s madness is heightened to an all-consuming yet entirely hollow delusion of immortality. Time seems to fade between each scene with the graceful flurries of mist transitioning from one to the next, and where that does not suffice, gorgeous long dissolves serve a similar purpose in wispily combining multiple images which exceed either in their individual beauty. 

These jaw-dropping ethereal landscapes still feeling completely boxed in by the narrow aspect ratio and ever-present mist.
Low angles peering up at the silhouettes of these immortal, mystical beings, towering over Macbeth like gods of his destiny.

As for Coen’s treatment of the narrative itself, The Tragedy of Macbeth does not shy away from the violent, desperate humanity of these characters, particularly in the depiction of the vaguely titled Third Murderer. Where the original script leaves this ambiguous figure as a minor role, Coen imbues them with the identity of one of Macbeth’s allies, Ross, grounding the evil of the story in a recognisable humanity. Coen’s newly defined character motivations are also evident in the casting of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, who are certainly among two of the older actors to take on the roles of Lord and Lady Macbeth. Both wield a skilful control over this weighty and loquacious material, though it is especially in the simmering, angry ambition of their characters that they transform these antiheroes from upwardly mobile youths into an ageing, childless couple making a last-ditch attempt to create a legacy. 

Washington and McDormand are both accomplished actors with many great films behind them, and The Tragedy of Macbeth will still go down as among their best. Their command over this weighty material is truly impressive.

Underscoring their corruption even further is Coen’s visual depiction of Macbeth’s very first murder in a frighteningly tense and wordless sequence, manifesting what was only left implicit in the original without inventing entirely new dialogue. In emphasising the act of killing, Coen draws out additional layers of subtext to Macbeth’s merciless cruelty, capturing the horrifying recognition on both his and King Duncan’s face of what is about to take place. Just as the casting of Ross as the Third Murderer gives a human identity to evil, so too does the explicit depiction of this assassination accomplish the same objective, revealing the true, hideous face of Macbeth as an elderly man taking the life of others so that he may secure the immortality that he believes he was promised.

As for the source of this belief, it comes from nothing more than a twisted image of supernaturalism which both disturbs and intrigues our senses. Kathryn Hunter may very well deliver the most hauntingly memorable performance in The Tragedy of Macbeth as the prophetic Weird Sisters, divorcing the characters from whatever preconceived images of witches we might possess, and crafting an entirely new interpretation of a single, croaking contortionist, speaking with three voices through one mouth. When she stands up straight, a black cloak encompasses her entire body, associating her with those flying shadows of death that continue to make their presence known all through the film, and when she does finally split into three separate bodies, they remain very much identical parts of one whole.

Kathryn Hunter is another standout. An extremely physical actor with equally remarkable vocal talents, distinguishing between the three witches in that deep, croaky voice.
An inspired take on the witches – three parts of one whole, whether they inhabit a single body, manifest as reflections, or appear as visually identical triplets.

In the constant manipulation of these witches’ physical forms, they effectively transcend all traces of humanity we might attach to them, and thus inspire mortal men and women towards similar unearthly ambitions. As Lord and Lady Macbeth find themselves caught up in the witches’ prophecies, manifesting their destinies in whatever malicious way they see fit, there remains a constant, heavy pounding in Coen’s sound design. It might sound like footsteps, or the steady advance of some unknown fate, but in the way it is often attached to light visual rhythms such as blood dripping from King Duncan’s hand or the tapping of a tree branch outside a window, it also offers a hefty weight to Macbeth’s vile actions.

This is but part of a collection of ominous visual and aural motifs that Coen so skilfully weaves into Shakespeare’s script though, each of which work in tandem to underscore that stark difference between the volatile viciousness of humanity and the unforgiving march of destiny. Through its magnificent performances, delicately wispy editing, and Bruno Delbonnel’s ghostly cinematography, virtually every minute of The Tragedy of Macbeth feels as if it is on the brink of mortality, ready to tip over into a terrifyingly dark and mystical realm. It is a wildly ambitious swing for Coen, and yet rarely has he ever been so in tune with his own fatalistic fascinations, attacking them with an artistic precision that he has spent decades honing.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

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