I had the privilege of seeing this film in theatres, as I think everyone should, and as the lights dimmed the audience shrunk into the claustrophobic nightmare that is “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. The almost square 4:3 aspect ratio and black-and-white visuals were hand-picked by director Joel Coen (and his team) to strip away any comfort and distraction and force our “players” centre stage. These were the first in a long line of deftly chosen directorial details that more than justify the existence of yet another “Macbeth” film.
The film begins with the introduction of the weird sister, played by Kathryn Hunter, who we find contorted into an alien shape. She gives her introductory soliloquy in a deep timbre as it is revealed the other two sisters are merely strange shadows of herself. All this beautifully recreates her as truly weird in the Shakespearean sense, namely otherworldly, and having only one sister lends the character more screen time to establish herself as just as important and memorable as the central characters in the film. Speaking of, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand’s titanic performances as the titular character and his wife serve as the foundation upon which Coen builds an absurd world of German expressionism that still feels entirely realistic. I do feel, however, the director leans a too heavily on the audience’s knowledge of these characters’ arcs prior to seeing the film. I would have liked to have seen Macbeth’s pre-prophecy jovial and righteous side which could have better contrasted with his tragic descent into the “river of blood” and left the audience feeling more moved by his eventual demise. In a world of characters like Cersei Lannister and Amy Dunne I would have also loved to have seen a version of Lady Macbeth, from Frances McDormand, that is a true Machiavellian master manipulator. With Shakespeare there is no room for improvement in the lines themselves, so the devil is in the delivery: Coen and McDormand flirt with the idea of Lady Macbeth being like this, but all too quickly she loses control and sanity. That all said, the choices made were those most authentic to the text and as I said above, McDormand and Washington’s portrayals were nothing short of Oscar worthy.
These directorial choices come to fruition perfectly early in the run time – during Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy – which stands out as the film’s best scene. King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) is hosted inside Macbeth’s castle, but we only see Macbeth outside brooding over the deed to come. The courtyard he stands in seems to be pulled straight out a Giorgio de Chirico painting with its expansive arches and surreal never-ending walls. The king goes to his chambers and the soliloquy begins. “Is this a dagger which I see before me”; Macbeth now paces towards Duncan’s room, flanked by vaulted arches – a reference to Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” to become king. Washington delivers this piece with such resolve that we can start to understand Macbeth’s actions. Coen chooses a single close-up shot for the murder itself, that lasts for an excruciating length of time. The horror of this deed is reinforced by its choreography; Macbeth struggles to slide the knife through Duncan’s neck and, eventually, we watch as black blood oozes from its incision. All the elements of his artistic direction work to make the scene something darker that it has been in any other iteration.
Coen has created an authentic extension of this iconic play onto the silver screen. The absurd cinematography was integral to furthering the themes of the text and whilst I wasn’t completely emotionally invested in Macbeth’s downfall, Denzel Washington’s performance – and for that matter the entire principal cast’s – was so thoughtfully crafted that I feel this was one of the best adaptations of “Macbeth”, and a masterpiece in its own right.