The Tragedy of Macbeth | reviewed my Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine-March 202

Life's But A Walking Shadow
The Tragedy of Macbeth

Miles David Moore

Macbeth is far from Shakespeare's only meditation on the folly of human ambition, but it is his greatest representation of the insidiousness of ambition.  Richard III flings his schemes in our faces from the first, whereas Lear, cast out by Regan and Goneril, confronts the bitter end of his lifelong quest for power. But "brave Macbeth," a man "full o'th' milk of human kindness" in the words of his wife and soon-to-be accomplice, hears the three witches hail him as the future king of Scotland and travels down a bloody road toward power that ends in despair and death.  Do the witches plant the seed of ambition in Macbeth, or do they merely foretell?  For twenty generations of theatergoers and literary scholars, that is the question. The answer—if there is one—is as labyrinthine as the paths through Birnam Wood.  But we see the seed take root as a parasite in Macbeth's brain and grow until it kills its host.

J. Stuart Blackton directed the first film version of Macbeth in 1908.  Since then there have been dozens of movie and television versions, as well as free adaptations which transplant the story of Macbeth to different places and eras. I have seen four to date.  These include Orson Welles' 1948 version, starring himself and Jeanette Nolan; Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa's 1957 film transposing the story to feudal Japan; Trevor Nunn's 1979 TV adaptation of his Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench; and The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen's new film on Apple TV+ starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand.  All these films have extraordinary qualities that commend them to any audience.  The Tragedy of Macbeth, in my opinion, is the best of the four.

There have already been reams of copy written about The Tragedy of Macbeth.  Two essays I found especially insightful were those by Olivia Rutigliano on the LitHub website and Austin Tichenor in Shakespeare & Beyond, the e-newsletter of the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Their thoughts on the film are very close to mine, and I will cite their articles as necessary.

Like Welles' Macbeth and Throne of Blood, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a condensed version of the story; each of the three runs about an hour and forty-five minutes.  All three films are in black-and-white, with production designs shrouded in nebulous gloom, as if all the soldiers and castles of Scotland have already embraced their status as ghosts.  Of the three, The Tragedy of Macbeth is the most resplendent-- indeed one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.  As both Rutigliano and Tichenor note, the aspect ratio of The Tragedy of Macbeth—1.19:1—resembles that of 1920s silent film, and that is the key to the film's visual style.  Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant create an atmosphere that could rightly be described as ghostly if it were not for the hard reality of the images they present.  Murders of crows appear vaguely in the sky, then suddenly tear through the screen as if intent on committing actual murder.  Characters advance toward us from the far end of dark corridors, in the dim light emanating from high arches—De Chirico as reimagined by F.W. Murnau. 


If the images Delbonnel and Dechant create are unforgettable, so are the transitions from scene to scene, thanks to the editing of Coen (working under the pseudonym of Reginald Jaynes) and Lucian Johnston.  One transition I found especially thrilling takes us from the scene between Ross (Alex Hassell) and the Old Man (Kathryn Hunter) to what appears to be a full moon—until Banquo (Bertie Carvel) steps into it.  It is at once a spotlight and a bullseye on a character who is a dead man walking.

Throne of Blood can't be discussed as a straight adaptation of Shakespeare; Kurosawa used the basic story but created his own screenplay in the form of a Noh play and did not attempt to replicate Shakespeare's language.  Nevertheless, Kurosawa did the same thing that Welles and Coen did in their editing of Shakespeare's play: all three emphasized the relationship between Macbeth and his wife, which directors of Macbeth do not always do.   Part of that might be considered cynically in the case of Coen's film: Frances McDormand is his wife, and also the co-producer.  But the brilliance of the achievement cancels all cynical thoughts. McDormand's Lady Macbeth is a fascinating variation on the thoughtful, determined women she has always played. No other actor in our time has so brilliantly conveyed the process of thinking as McDormand, most often as directed by Coen.  With subtle movements of an eye or a facial muscle, McDormand's Lady Macbeth makes her machinations palpable.  She is "from the crown to the toe, top-full/Of direst cruelty," but for what she believes is a high purpose.  I found myself thinking of another monumental performance, albeit in a different role: Sian Phillips' Livia in I, Claudius.


Washington matches McDormand every step of the way, playing Macbeth as a bluff, athletic career soldier who has ignored his own ambitions too long.  He is surprised by them when they appear, but once he begins to act on them, he becomes them.  The man is dead.  His eventual slaying by Macduff is a mere formality.  Most versions of Macbeth have Duncan's murder occurring offstage; Coen, as befits the director of Fargo and No Country for Old Men, shows Macbeth driving the dagger into Duncan's throat, complete with blood dripping on the floor.  We see Lady Macbeth's shocked disbelief at the cold-bloodedness of her husband in accusing and killing Duncan's attendants for the murder.  She knows in that moment she has created a monster, and that is the start of her undoing.

Coen, Washington, and McDormand emphasize the sheer barrenness of the lives of the Macbeths, and of their marriage.  We feel the full force of the lines, "Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,/And put a barren scepter in my gripe./Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,/No son of mine succeeding."  We also see that one of Lady Macbeth's motivations in conspiring with her husband is her grief and guilt at having no surviving children.  Rutigliano puts it succinctly: "(S)he sees her chance to beget him a legacy, giving him a kingdom since she could not give him a child…The irreparable murders in Macbeth are framed as deriving more from grief than simple corruption."

It is interesting to compare the acting styles in the Coen, Welles and Nunn versions of Macbeth.  The use of accents alone is instructive.  Welles has all the characters use a Scottish burr; Nunn's actors speak in the most elegant RSC tones.  In Coen's version, the accents are mixed.  Most of the accents are English, but Brendan Gleeson's as Duncan is Scottish, while Washington, McDormand and Corey Hawkins as Macduff speak straight -up American.  Kenneth Branagh has employed this mix of accents in most of his Shakespeare films (including Much Ado About Nothing, in which Washington played Don Pedro), but some still debate whether this is an effective approach.  Personally, I do not feel the need to choose between traditional and non-traditional versions of Shakespeare.  In Nunn's version, McKellen and Dench are masterful by any standard, but particularly by the traditional British standard of Shakespearian performance. Washington and McDormand in Coen's version are clear, direct, cinematic.  (Tichenor quotes Washington as saying that Coen admonished his actors against "stick-up-the-butt acting.")  All four performances are driven by powerful emotion and intellect, and I love and admire all four.  As always, talent and vision are what count.


The entire cast of The Tragedy of Macbeth is excellent; I was especially intrigued by Alex Hassell, who makes Ross the wild card of the story.  However, one performer truly stands out: Kathryn Hunter, who in addition to the Old Man portrays all three of the witches, aided in that task by Coen's directorial magic.  A renowned stage actress and director whose roles have included Richard III and King Lear, Hunter is an advocate of physical theatre, and to see her in action is to learn the definition of that term.  Hunter is half dancer, half contortionist.  Her legs twist in impossible convolutions, her arms flap like broken birds' wings, her gravelly voice emanates as from the deepest caverns of Hell.  This is the essence of evil, burning through the screen.  It is Shakespearian acting at its most transcendent.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is Shakespearian tragedy reimagined as film noir.  There isn't much difference in the end between the Macbeths and, say, Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff.  Fools dream of glory, however they define it, but find only the way to dusty death.  And so it is, to the last syllable of recorded time.



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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C.reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2022 Miles David Moore
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