Opening night of the 59th New York Film Festival showcased the world premiere of The Tragedy of Macbeth, a passion project for director Joel Coen. There is a lot of passion and a fair deal of project in this film, both demonstrated by Coen’s masterful, if at times staged, combination of the work of many talented below-the-line filmmakers.
Coen himself penned the script, which hews closely to William Shakespeare’s renowned stage play in five acts. While Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are stellar as the main characters in this story of brazen desire and violent power, the movie may ultimately be remembered for a visually stunning and aurally memorable rendition of the story—the first serious one since 1971.
The story of Lord Macbeth (Washington) should need no introduction. A noble in the Scottish court, Macbeth becomes drunken with ambition after three witches prophesize to him that he will one day sit on the throne and his wife Lady Macbeth (McDormand) pushes him over the cliff of his darkest desires. When King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) pays him an inopportune visit, Macbeth, egged on by the witches (all played by a stupendous Kathryn Hunter) and his zealous wife, stabs him to death in his sleep. After pushing the King’s sons out of the way, Macbeth occupies the throne as predicted, but someone forgot to tell him to read the fine print in the witches’ tale. Murder begets murder, and one killing necessitates another. Before too long, the cunning pair become consumed with guilt, paranoia, and fear, leading the otherwise fearsome lady to even imagine bloodstains on her hand and purporting to expel them by decrying them, “Out, damn spot!” If I were titling the film, I probably would have called it The Madness of King Macbeth, as there is no dearth of parallel between this fictional character and a real-life king who would rule in folly over neighboring England centuries later. But, to be fair, Macbeth’s deeds are tragic, at least for the victims of his animosity.
When one watches a retelling of such a known quantity, one does so not for the what but for the how. How exactly is the undeniably talented Coen Brother going to render his vision of this story? The answer, as it turns out, is impressively.
Start with the film’s best element, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour, Amelie), an amazingly crisp and effective, shadowy black and white that could finally net the French lenser an Academy Award. Macbeth and Lady traverse their castle in and out of the shadows, real and imagined ones, across salons and in close quarters. Some of the play’s pivotal scenes require depictions of battlefields and prairies, here lit in a shadowy grew pallor that projects the turbidness of the proceedings. Even smoke makes an appearance, sometimes as a transition device, sometimes as one meant to confuse you. Whatever trick Delbonnel has up his sleeve, it will keep you guessing, and never has a black and white film looked so colorfully alive than through his well-lit execution.
But The Tragedy of Macbeth is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to below-the-line talent. Next worth mentioning is Carter Burwell’s both muted and also loud, drumbeat score, his 16th or 17th collaboration with at least one of the Coen Brothers—having scored their first movie way back in 1984. Here, Burwell conveys the melodic evil, the tragic madness that swallows the principal characters with sufficiently quiet, ominous tones, while at the same time imposing a beating noise that likely symbolizes the increasing volume in Macbeth’s spiraling-out-of-control mind. While these sounds may at first distract you, they eventually weave themselves into the tapestry of the film, as a part of the voices that are pounding inside Macbeth’s and Lady’s head.
The late medieval, courtesan costumes are there, too, courtesy of Mary Zophres, though, here, at least, the black and white gimmick keeps her from showing off their true potential. Still, the leathery texture of the men’s uniforms combined with the beautiful simplicity of McDormand’s various dresses (until she is Queen, at least), fit well with the film’s overall tone.
Which brings us to the impressively minimalist set design by Production Designer Stefan Dechant and Set Decorator Nancy Haigh, perhaps the most inventive part of The Tragedy of Lady Macbeth. The two combine to create mostly empty exteriors, vast corridors, triple ceilings framed by arched doorways. Sunlight peppers the top of the castles, and the outdoors are devoid of most things other than trees and small structures. It would be wrong to interpret their work as signifying the empty inner soul of the titular character. Macbeth is filled with putrid hatred and vile evil, and there is nothing empty about his wife’s scheming head. Instead, the idea is that the forces around them are bigger than them, vaster, and beyond their reach. It never has been definitely resolved by Shakespeare scholars if the tyrant was doomed by a witch’s curse, by his own design, or by the simple bad luck of destiny. To see these sets, though, you’d think the answer has finally been uncovered—it is all three, operating to crush the villain with the heavy weight of their existence.
Coen’s greatest achievement for this film is to amass this incredible talent and extract career bests from most of them. His lowest point is, as usual when he and his brother’s films are problematic, tripping up on his own talent. Coen’s insistence for artful renditions could have followed the beautiful settings around with much effect. Instead, he poisons The Tragedy of Macbeth with a disaster of its own, a camera that insists on exaggerated angles, on panning from the ceiling, as if the floor had been lifted parallel to the screen, and on purporting to hide critical developments from the scene as if the audience does not know how the story plays out. The net effect of his busy camerawork is that of unwelcome distraction, one that ties the movie down from its true, full potential.
Last but not least is the talented cast that headlines this film. McDormand has the toughest challenge, playing a character that has confounded literature experts for centuries with her unbridled wit and malice juxtaposed with her innocent descent into madness. McDormand’s naturally stern gaze is a perfect fit for the part. Denzel, for his part, plays Macbeth more gutturally, more physically, screaming and heaving at times. It is an interesting choice for a character that’s supposed to be a little more hapless, but one that is certain to garner him awards attention later this year. Beyond the actress playing the witches, the other memorable performances belong to Corey Hawkins as Macduff, the avenging savior who first realizes that regicide is at hand and that something must be done, and to Bertie Carvel, as Macbeth ally Banquo, who later falls victim to his pal’s bloodlust.
There has always been something inherently powerful about Shakespeare’s play about greed and betrayal, about death and destiny. It has endured through the ages as a symbol of both personal and even national destruction at the hands of sin. But a good story does not a good film necessarily make. More is needed, especially for such a well-prodded quantity. With The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen, his cast, and his crew give us just that—a well-executed rendition that will stay with you visually, aurally, and even spiritually, after the credits roll, thanks to the emphatically forceful dedication of the work they put into making it.
The Tragedy of Macbeth premiered at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters on December 25, 2021 and then stream on Apple TV+ on January 14, 2022.