Near the beginning of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, I lost my breath at a simple transition of one scene to the next. Macbeth (Denzel Washington) has just been told the news that he has been made Thane of Cawdor, an unexpected honor foretold to him by the Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter, who in an unusual casting plays all three witches as one.) As he contemplates his fate – whether, now being Cawdor, he must become king thereafter – the camera moves past his face, the frame becoming enveloped in the haze of shadows playing on the fabric of his tent, only to dissolve into the harsh, angular arrangement of light that is the hallway of his castle. It is here that Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) will set herself to her unspeakable ambition. The difference in their characters – the diffidence and hesitancy of the lord, the steely resolve of the lady – is made manifest by the light that surrounds them.
The composition of frames in this Macbeth is meticulous. Much has been made of how stagelike this production is as a result of the decision to shoot entirely on sound stages, but this is hardly a version of Macbeth meant to recall the experience of live theater. Rather, Coen eschews all forms of naturalism in order to have maximum control over the way light is shaped and formed. Architecture is never solid, merely suggestions of windows and arches, while the actors are framed in chiaroscuro, their faces outlines of light on the edge of unknowable darkness. This film is one of the most purely cinematic creations I have seen in years, a movie wrapped in the dreamlike quality of black and white film.
This approach works well here specifically because of the familiarity of source material. Macbeth is one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and has been the subject of more than 20 film and television adaptations, not to mention numerous works based on the plot but not the language, such as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Scotland PA (2001).
With such a rich history of approaches to the script, every new Macbeth must distinguish itself by how it approaches the touchstones of the play. How to present the Weird Sisters? What do we see played against lines like “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?” What of the assorted ghosts and visions – are they presented as real, as hallucinations, or something else? The joy of a new Macbeth comes in knowing these elements will be present but not knowing how they will be presented.
Kathryn Hunter’s turn as the Weird Sisters catches the most attention, and rightfully so. Coen identifies the three witches with ravens, inviting thoughts of figures like the Morrigan. The film opens on three ravens circling overhead in the pale and smoky sky. When Hunter appears, she is wearing a hood and smock whose patterns suggest the feathers of a black bird, and her voice has an alien quality like a raven’s croak. At first, there appears to be only one witch, but in a wonderfully surreal shot, the witch has two reflections in a pool of water at her feet, creating the trinity.
Late in the film, when Macbeth summons the Weird Sisters to receive his final divination, they appear roosting on the joists of his castle walls, staring down at him as his chamber floods with fetid water or blood. Hunter’s performance, which relies on her talents as a contortionist, is unearthly and unsettling, a classical approach to the witches that, nonetheless, feels unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Washington’s performance in the lead role is grounded in weariness. At times, his Macbeth presents a sort of bravado, as in the lead up to his murder of King Duncan (Brendan Glesson), a thrilling sequence in which Macbeth in which his monologue is punctuated by the loud sound of his boots pressing against the stone floor. As he delivers the first lines – “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” – his voice is unsure, hesitant, and the beat of his footsteps slow. But as he walks down the long vaulted hall toward Duncan’s door, his face shifting back and forth between bright light and deep shadow, Washington’s entire demeanor shifts, until his steps are quick and his voice and expression bubble over with swagger.
Once the blood is spilled, however, he always returns to the essential pointlessness of his actions. What does he gain in the end for all his crimes? He was happier as the Thane of Glamis. If I have any critique, it’s that the scenes of Macbeth’s madness do not completely line up with those of his despair, but even there the staging is riveting: Macbeth’s encounter with the ghost of Banquo (Bertie Carvel), in particular, is a marvel.
It is easy to play Lady Macbeth as having total dominion over her husband, and many productions of the play choose this route. At first glance, it seems that this is how McDormand approaches the role as well. But McDormand’s performance is subtle and more complicated than that. Though she guides him toward his bloody path, she is not sure what to do with him once he has embraced it. “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, and put a barren sceptre in my gripe,” Macbeth raves after he has become king. “Mine eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man, to make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!” In the play, this is a monologue, shared with nobody but the audience, but Coen instead has Macbeth deliver the speech to his wife, and McDormand’s reactions, at once resigned, concerned, annoyed, and fearful, are masterful. She has set in motion something beyond her power to stop.
Washington, McDormand, and Hunter’s performances burn brightest, but the rest of the cast delivers a solid performance. One of the highlights is Alex Hassell as Ross, an undistinguished part in the play whom Hassell elevates into the embodiment of the changing perceptions of Macbeth’s reign. Moses Ingram’s single heartbreaking scene as Lady Macduff is also a show-stealer.
That said, this is a film where the acting is a secondary concern, and I mean that as high praise. What I took away from The Tragedy of Macbeth was a series of incredible images, a work of set design and cinematography that is absolutely distinct in modern cinema. The thin line of soldiers covered by the boughs of Burnham wood; the claustrophobic battlements atop Macbeth’s castle; the otherworldly throne room, whose walls in one scene are solid stone and in the next open to the falling leaves of the forest; these are what linger, along with the circling ravens, waiting for their share of blood.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.