Dagger of a Film
Film Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
The new film version of the 416-year-old play called The Tragedy of Macbeth (its full title) is an exceptional cinematic experience by any yardstick, for almost any age group. But for readers of this magazine, which celebrates the ongoing potential of persons over the age of forty, it is unmissable: an unforgettable demonstration of the vitality of this demographic.
The director, Joel Coen (age 67), and his real-life spouse Frances McDormand (age 64) have collaborated on a joint vision to bring William Shakespeare’s famous story about a power grab by another married couple in medieval Scotland to the screen. But they’ve added one uncommon variable: they present the couple as ambitious people, but older than has been done previously. So they lured the celebrated actor and director himself, Denzel Washington (age 67), to play the title role, and off they went.
The roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are typically portrayed by younger actors, since the characters were originally written that way. Another worthwhile screen version, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), featured relatively unknown actors in their twenties in these roles. While I am not an expert in any respect on Shakespeare’s work, merely a fan, I know that part of what drives the plot as originally written was the audacity of the venerable couple to seize the moment and make a bold maneuver to usurp power.
Joel Coen’s decision—one of many fascinating choices he and his team made—to present Macbeth and his wife as a childless older couple executing what another bard, Bruce Springsteen, once famously called a “last-chance power drive” is the primary point of divergence from other versions. It works stirringly, exposing new layers to the tragic tale while also providing these two renowned actors a rare opportunity.
Washington and McDormand—owners of five Academy Awards between the two of them, incidentally—don’t squander it. Graying, and jaded by the mental and physical toll of all they have fought for, the actors present us with complex, embattled spirits whose experiences have trained them to recognize an opening when it comes. They have suffered indignities and oversights, not to mention the implied loss (in the text) of at least one child, and the weary precision of both performers’ delivery of Shakespeare’s mellifluous if sometimes acidic lines is something to savor.
When Washington’s Macbeth, a general in King Duncan of Scotland’s army (played by another veteran, Brendan Gleeson), returns from an impressive military victory, he and his peer Banquo (Bertie Carvel) encounter a trio of witches referred to as “weird sisters” who prophecy to both men about their unexpected futures. They promise Macbeth that he will first be promoted, then will be “King hereafter.” When Banquo reasonably asks after his own fate, the witches cryptically tell him he will become both less and more than Macbeth. They also predict that Banquo will father a “line” of kings but won’t be one himself.
This exchange leaves both men scratching their heads, until subsequent events bear the witches out. The meeting itself, minutes into the film, is one of the movie’s many exhilarating moments and sets a striking visual and lyrical tone for all that comes after.
In an ingenious stroke, Coen cast a British thespian named Kathryn Hunter to play all three witches. Appearing only a few times, Hunter all but steals the film. Delivering famous lines in a harsh and haunting rasp, and contorting her wiry body into unnatural shapes, the veteran stage presence is an absolute wonder. With her chilling opening monologue over a black screen and this first meeting with Macbeth and Banquo, coupled with dazzling visual effects and photography, the bar for the movie in general is set very high.
But the other cast members (all outstanding) and Coen in particular would not have it otherwise. Happily, they are up to it. Many other performers stand out in small but vital supporting roles, too many to detail, from both veteran and younger international talents such as Corey Hawkins, Alex Hassell, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling, and Stephen Root.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, for all of its scenes in which seasoned actors display their mettle in handling Shakespeare’s gloriously complicated sentences as if they were chatting with intimate friends, is arguably even more laudable for its visual acuity and sure-handed presentation. Coen, in his first solo venture without his brother and frequent collaborator Ethan, is unquestionably an impeccable craftsman in top form. As with the films he made with Ethan, every last detail is paid careful attention, and the result is a feast.
Shot in crisp black and white by the talented French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the film is set-designed and photographed to appear less like a stage-to-screen version and more of a screen-to-stage one—a movie that looks like a play. Thus, the entire thing takes place on sets that give the impression of a theatrical experience, with clean lines, high or non-existent ceilings, slanting rays of searing light, shadowy corridors.
The effect is surreal and nightmarish, frequently reminiscent of classic films from other eras. Many of the images recall Ingmar Bergman’s classic films from the sixties like The Virgin Spring or The Seventh Seal. You may also think of film noir. And thirdly, those who are familiar with it may also notice shades of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s equally outstanding, black-and-white take on Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957).
Countless other choices made by the filmmakers arrest the eye and provide ample motivation for repeated viewings of this tragedy, which gallops to a somewhat rushed conclusion in under two hours. But certainly, what sets this movie apart are the shades of gray, both metaphorical and literal (in the case of the film’s principals). Both before and behind the camera, the sense of bringing decades of ill choices, missed opportunities, but hard-won experience to bear upon the work that lies before us ultimately inspires mature viewers to be “more than you were,” in Lady Macbeth’s words.
There is always more we can accomplish. This is not, I think, the central message of The Tragedy of Macbeth. But it is a feeling I took away from Coen’s stunning retelling. See if you do not agree.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV.
Photo credit by Matt Riches @voodoojava.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.