In no particular order, Joel Coen’s 105-minute The Tragedy of Macbeth–out on Apple TV+–reminded me of German expressionist films, film noir, gothic horror, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), Orson Welles’ Macbeth adaptation from 1948, Denzel Washington’s performance in Training Day (2001), and Frances McDormand’s calculative and nervy roles in several Coen brothers’ films.
It’s a film you will enjoy if you know your Macbeth and/or movies. But I’m not sure if the film ever rises above its origins and influences. Unlike the daredevil Indian Macbeth adaptations Maqbool and Joji, or Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)–a feudal Japan-set Macbeth with Noh influences–the madness of Macbeth never spills out of the screen in Joel Coen’s film. It is too meticulous, studied and hyperstylised to leave you genuinely haunted or spooked. The Tragedy of Macbeth is an out-and-out experiment by a master cinephile, and on those terms alone, this is great cinema.
Ethan Coen, who had written and directed 18 feature films with his younger brother Joel for 34 years, chose to not be part of the project. The Tragedy of Macbeth was developed by Joel Coen and his wife Frances McDormand, who has previously played both Lady Macbeth and one of the Weird Sisters in a 2016 stage adaptation. Bruno Delbonnel shot the film digitally in black-and-white with an 1:37:1 aspect ratio, the pre-widescreen standard for American sound films. Denzel Washington plays Macbeth, and Frances McDormand Lady Macbeth.
One of the earliest surprises come from Kathryn Hunter, who is all three Weird Sisters in one body, sometimes divides into three, and occasionally turns into a raven. For the three witches, she has distinct voices, which open the film over black screen. It is when we see Hunter in flesh, we realise the conceit. Her spidery body twists and turns like a contortionist’s before she gets up, ambles like a big bird, the sound design underlining her liminal condition of half-crone, half-raven.
Wherever you look in this exquisitely shot movie, there are straight lines, shadows and symmetry. Coen, Delbonnel, production designer Stefan Dechant, art director Jason T Clark, and set decorator Nancy Haigh wrap Macbeth in the archetypical German expressionist/film noir style of labyrinths and chiaroscuros.
Unlike David Fincher’s Mank, where Erik Messerschmidt’s digital black-and-white cinematography felt like an uneasy idea, the sleek, grain-less digital sheen actually works in favour of The Tragedy of Macbeth. Shot entirely on sound stages, the matte paintings in the film’s exterior shots, particularly the pitch-black sky with prominent stars, reminded me of another cinematic hell on earth, Sin City. The scene in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and washes her hands in the night is pure gothic horror.
I was initially not convinced by the pairing of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the Macbeths, but the casting makes sense once Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) is killed. As Macbeth’s hubris increases, Washington unleashes his characteristic sound and fury that we have seen in so many of his action entertainers, particularly, Training Day. And with Lady Macbeth, now terrified, McDormand becomes cagey and cautious, a particular performance style she had made us familiar with over the years.
In many ways, Joel Coen’s bard noir feels like a futuristic, updated version of Welles’ Macbeth. Welles’ version felt like an ancient fever dream from the Scottish moors, a spirit that also haunts Coen’s Macbeth. But because of the production values and skill involved, his film lacks the low-budget Welles movie’s savage atmosphere, which is a critical component of the Macbeth story. As a result, all that’s left to do is marvel at the craftsmanship at work.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and others