Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Macbeth and His Lady

The Tragedy of Macbeth is filled with brilliant casting in the world of Shakespearean cinema. Joel Coen casts Denzel Washington as the ambitious Macbeth, who learns of his inevitable crown and begins to eliminate his competition to achieve it. Frances McDormand, Coen’s wife and creative partner, reprises her role from the stage as Lady Macbeth. Both Washington and McDormand deliver flawless performances, complementing each other’s roles like a committed couple on a shared ascent.

While other adaptations have often emphasized Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband, Washington, a theater regular, reminds us of his versatility, shining in a role that requires him to portray guilt, inner conflict, and overwhelming paranoia. However, only a few actors can execute this gradual descent into madness as effectively as he does.

On the other hand, McDormand excels in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, infusing the character with the careful logic of a level-headed partner in crime. Together, Washington and McDormand bring the hallucinations, experiences, and character choices of their weathered and desperate characters to life. Supported by Carter Burwell’s minimalistic, almost non-existent score, the film pounds the minds of the couple as it unfolds within the confines of the castle.

The Bloodthirsty of Irony

While many directors have adapted Shakespeare’s works for the cinema, the results have varied. Striking a balance between drama and form, as well as between narration and dialogue, can be a challenge. Some films draw too much attention to their filmmaking techniques. Directors like Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh, who take a minimalist approach and focus on the dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s works, have produced successful adaptations.

The Tragedy of Macbeth, however, stands out from the brief but bloodthirsty cinematic versions of Shakespeare’s plays. It manages to be both concise and complex. Interestingly, this film marks the first time that Joel Coen has worked on a film without his brother Ethan Coen. As a result, many of the trademark sarcasm and peculiarities associated with the Coen brothers’ work are absent in this film. The use of a squared aspect ratio serves to evoke the protagonist’s sense of being trapped or imprisoned.

The Throne of Macbeth

Macbeth himself is a nobleman who ascended to the throne of Scotland by killing the king he once served loyally. His descent into nihilism began with this act of regicide. Macbeth’s crimes were horrifying, even by the standards of Shakespearean tragedy. He ordered the massacre of his closest comrades and innocent people as his evil tendencies escalated, along with his suffering and his vivid imagination. His inventiveness became increasingly complex as well. Macbeth’s inevitable death held the promise of liberation from his torments and transgressions. The film serves as a layered adaptation of this dramatic narrative.

Nevertheless, The Tragedy of Macbeth conjures a cinematic landscape that delves deep into Shakespeare’s world, casting it in a shadowy and enigmatic realm. It creates a unique negative space, where empty stone corridors intersect with barren meadows, occasionally punctuated by bursts of frenzied yet shattered psychology, interrupting the somber grid of boxes.

The Vacant Transition

In his adaptation of the Scottish drama, Coen abandons specific character subplots, opting instead to focus on character recognition and spatial transitions. He reduces the story to its essentials while maintaining a level of complexity. Coen’s approach is as meticulous as Stefan Decant’s production designs.

Upon first glance, The Tragedy of Macbeth may resemble Orson Welles’ monochromatic rendition of Shakespeare, with its use of high-contrast and stage lighting. However, Coen’s film draws comparisons to 12 Angry Men in certain sequences, evoking a noir-like folktale atmosphere. The entire tapestry is shrouded in darkness, fostering debate and abstraction to enhance the set’s spatial dynamics. It’s an achievement made even more remarkable by the caliber of actors involved.

For instance, Kathryn Hunter’s performance draws inspiration from traditional trademarks, reminiscent of The Seventh Seal. Her portrayal of the magician is characterized by contorted movements that are both eerie and captivating. Her voice resonates hauntingly in the minds of both Macbeth and the audience. In other instances, she convincingly transforms into an older man.

A Stage of Unravel

The point is, not much has changed. Macbeth committed numerous evil deeds in his quest for power, setting in motion a chain of brutality. At this juncture, he turns to the three old witches who had initially prophesied his rise to the throne. With their sinister intonation and elastic movements, they convey the darkest magic in the film.

Coen’s staging of Macbeth’s sequence is indirect but clever. Instead of showing the witches stirring a pot, he positions them on the ceiling like birds soaring overhead as Macbeth grapples with his destiny. Time and again, the director captures iconic moments from theater history. He creates an abstract stage within Macbeth’s castle, featuring surreal paintings, identical arches, and stark contrasts between light and darkness.

McDormand delivers her trademark steely composure as Lady Macbeth, making her eventual unraveling all the more poignant for the audience. With Washington in the role of Macbeth, the Shakespearean language flows effortlessly from somewhere deep within the film.

The King Who Wasn’t There

Coen’s production made the choice to present actor after actor on stage, employing a digital approach that reduces narrative and acting. The final frame, which introduces a CGI conspiracy, concludes the film on a slightly goofy note. However, when the striking Lady Macbeth haunts the castle and stands on the cliffside, there’s a beautiful simplicity to the scene. The film doesn’t aim for the kind of realism seen in Polanski’s horror adaptation. Instead, Coen highlights the sense of stasis and confinement through the digitization of the theatrical setting.

While Coen’s films often adhere to a particular format, there’s a single dot that encircles Coen’s character and the visual relationship between the stage and the frame. Bruno Delbonnel, known for his work on the black-and-white noir style of The Man Who Wasn’t There, composed most of the sets. These sets appear unadorned, lacking rugs even in Scottish castles. Instead, they feature sharp corners, reminiscent of German expressionist art and cinema. The design blends futuristic elements with geometric anachronisms, creating a fascinating contrast between the old and the new, with corners defining the aspect ratio of the frame.


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