Frances McDormand has been waiting over fifty years to put her mark on Macbeth. Despite her best efforts, she’s never been able to corral her husband, Joel Coen, into directing it onstage. But her persistence and passion for the project wore on him, eventually sparking imagination for a screen adaptation they would go on to produce together with Coen writing and directing (without his brother this time) and McDormand living out her career aspiration as Lady Macbeth alongside Shakespeare veteran Denzel Washington’s Lord Macbeth.
So much of Shakespeare’s Macbeth boils down to the mysterious linkage between soul and surface, inner and outer self — the way interior turmoil breeds exterior catastrophe. What happens to the body and mind when the conscience is compromised? What becomes of a person (or a kingdom) when they cherish power over people? In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Coen, McDormand, and company draw out the allegorical thematics in the play between cavernous inner spaces, as we so often see in the theatre, and close-ups on faces — something we see very little of in theatre — where that link can be investigated through intimate performances not only worthy of the work but perhaps even pioneering of it, somehow, 415 years later.
We open on the specter of a raven gliding through clouds. The camera sits static as the raven loops smoothly around the frame. Slowly, two more ravens fade into the picture, all three fade out, and the dense clouds transition seamlessly into the murky fog of the Scottish hillside. The naturally black and white objects in frame usher us into Bruno Delbonnel’s crisp black and white cinematography — up there with Łukasz Żal’s work on Ida or Cold War, or Stephen H. Burum’s on Rumble Fish — before The Captain (Ralph Ineson) emerges from the haze.
He walks straight up to the camera to create the first of many compelling closeups in The Tragedy of Macbeth, which have a magnetic energy and confidentiality to them that, because of distance between performer and viewer, simply couldn’t be captured on stage. Coen and Delbonnel shot in an Academy aspect ratio (11:8), which results in a smaller, squarer frame, and in this case, effectively spotlights faces by removing the excess trim of wider, more cinematic aspect ratios. The choice goes a long way in a story in which everyone speaks their values, philosophies, ethics, concerns, social strategies, and interior selves into the ether. It adds another layer of expression.
To witness the wrinkles and ticks in a character’s face is to have an opportunity to understand them from a new perspective, and in a script that stays true to the Shakespearean tongue, consistently close camerawork becomes a bridge over troubled water for all who aren’t up to speed with heady, expired versions of English. Of course, the closeups would mean nothing if the performances were uninspired, but they’re anything but that.
Denzel and McDormand (and a terrific supporting cast with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, and Harry Melling) are largely to thank when it comes to the sheer entertainment and transmissibility of Coen’s version. The leads carry us through the language barrier in such a way that even when you don’t know what the words mean, you know what the actors are trying to communicate, and you feel their pain. McDormand makes it clear that she’s been circling the part her whole life, and Washington proves his Shakespeare mastery in every breath. As we shake our heads over that Malcolm X loss for the umpteenth time, know that hopeful award campaigns seem very much in the picture for everyone involved.
Per everyone’s biggest question about stage-to-screen work: The Tragedy of Macbeth is stagey, but it never seems small or contained. Production designer Stefan Dechant — who Coen said he had the longest production design phase of his career with — creatively wields the concept of the stage to conjure an atmosphere that feels vast and existential, almost eternal, as if we begin and end in some lost purgatorial place. The soft, ever-present glow rising from the ground along the horizon is only one of many design pieces that contribute to an enormous sense of space. Others include a giant room of pillars, wooden beams over a flooded room, and a bloody cheek in a one-sworded fight. The stunning play between light and shadow and the choice to shoot from extreme angles both above and below the characters also add significant depth to the imagery.
Any new Macbeth is faced with the challenge of bringing something creatively worthwhile to the table, and The Tragedy of Macbeth passes that test with flying colors. From the way Coen cuts across scenes to the way light is splayed and blurred in the background of a static monologue to add a dynamic sense of development; from the slew of equally dynamic set pieces to Carter Burwell’s lavish score, Coen turns long-imagined sequences into fresh, stripped-down depictions grounded in striking simplicity (and German Expressionism), solidifying that there is no story he can’t tell onscreen.