“I have no words: my voice is in my sword,” said Frances McDormand during this year’s Oscars. The Nomadland star’s use of Macduff’s valiant line illustrates the malleability of Shakespeare. Verses assume new meaning when context changes, yet audiences familiar and inexperienced with the text can find power in careful turns of phrase. The same holds this way in the unexpectedly accessible The Tragedy of Macbeth that McDormand headlines under director/husband Joel Coen. McDormand and company prove that an actor’s voice and an artist’s intuition are the mightiest swords of all.
Audiences might wonder about the redundancy of another take on the Bard’s beloved tragedy so soon after the 2015 film by Justin Kurzel. However, this Macbeth offers more than mere novelty as an unexpected flick by Mr. Coen. The filmmaker best known for making whip-smart black comedies with his brother Ethan brings inspired vision to Shakespeare’s play. This Macbeth cloaks itself in the drama’s twisted interiority. It’s a dense psychological interpretation of the ill-fated Scottish warrior-turned king and his equally conniving wife. It helps, too, that Coen casts two of the best actors of any generation to play the Macbeths. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand give perhaps the best film takes ever on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
It’s Good to Be Bad
Coen’s film, moreover, doesn’t address the factor of race with Washington in the lead. There’s no new line about Macbeth’s Blackness, and the film doesn’t need one. Audiences nowadays are accustom to seeing a broader spectrum of actors tackling Shakespeare. Washington’s skill as a film performer, moreover, brings a certain richness to the casting. He knows how to go big without playing to the back row. His Macbeth is quiet and unassuming—meek and uninterested—when the story begins. However, when he encounters the three witches, all played brilliantly by Kathryn Hunter, a fire of ambition alights within him.
Washington, moreover, generally enjoys a reputation as one of Hollywood’s nicest leading men. His likability is outmatched only by jolly old Tom Hanks. When Washington gets the chance to explore the dark recesses of a character, though, he often delivers his best work. This performance is Macbeth by way of Alonzo Harris. A mean and merciless mo-fo, King Kong—or, in this case, Macduff—ain’t got nuthin’ on him. Washington’s precise and cool grasp of the Shakespearean verse delivers understated menace to the character. Where Macbeths often brood, this one barks. He also goes a little mad sometimes, which makes the character’s more overt unravelling in the final acts rich and satisfying as he usurps Lady Macbeth as the baddie of his own show. Rarely do Shakespeare films give audiences both Macbeth and Hamlet for the price of one, yet Washington pulls double duty with his dark interpretation.
McDormand matches him at every beat. This is a dryly funny Lady Macbeth. McDormand commands the film as the wife driven by power yet undone by it. McDormand and Coen also twist The Tragedy of Macbeth ever so slightly. They reimagine the Macbeths’ childlessness not as a marker of tragedy, but simply one of longevity. This marriage has seen many days.
The adaptation, merely by shifting from present to past tense in a key line, doesn’t use Macbeth’s desire for a son against him. On one hand, this subtle tweaking affords Lady Macbeth a smartly feminist reading. On the other, it makes a refreshingly inclusive consideration of Shakespeare for audiences who don’t have children. Gone is the pitiable nature of a childless marriage, nor is Lady Macbeth’s barrenness conflated with her undoing. With an almost imperceptible change of tense, this Macbeth reflects contemporary attitudes while strengthening the bond of its wicked anti-heroes.
As strong as Washington and McDormand are, the most inspired take on Macbeth nearly upstages them. That’s of course the idea to cast Hunter as all three witches. She appears infrequently in the film, also doing double as the old man who witnesses Banquo’s death, yet Hunter steals the film and captivates with magnetic power. She’s a trained Shakespeare thesp on stage, having been the first woman to play King Lear. Hunter’s credits also include Puck in Julie Taymor’s visionary A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and anyone who’s seen her work immediately recognizes her shapeshifting brilliance.
The physicality with which Hunter imbues the witches’ spells is an extraordinary thrill. Shakespeare’s verse lends the witches’ speeches unique visual language and Hunter interprets it through her body. The performance evokes the physical dazzle of Cirque du Soleil with the freaky dance moves Yvie Oddly, yet remains sharply focused. The words lead each movement of Hunter’s body and guide the viewers’ eyes across the frame. Hunter, who won the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Supporting Actress prize for her performance, is truly hypnotic with each appearance. This power is key to Macbeth as one feels Macbeth’s own surrender to the witch’s aura.
Film and Theatre Collide
Hunter’s performance best illustrates how Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth honours its theatrical origins while re-imaging the text cinematically. Coen’s take is bold, yet stagey, yet cinematic. Shakespeare’s soliloquies appear not as asides or interior monologues but as stream-of-consciousness speeches driven by action and interaction. Coen’s visual language, complemented by brilliant black and white cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, accentuates Shakespeare’s verse.
This is Shakespeare that speaks across centuries. The palaces of Scotland have hints of German Expressionism, Gothicism, and structuralism. The sets are claustrophobic and minimalist. The enclosures evoke the confines of a theatrical stage but also the prison the Macbeths create for themselves. The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of the most accessible cases of Shakespeare on film ever. The film casts multiple parts across races with Corey Hawkins and Moses Ingram as the Macduffs, while the billowing sleeves and cinched waist sported by Ross (Alex Hassell) let the contemporary seep in through costuming and comportment.
Perhaps more than any test of an auteur’s salt is the vision he or she brings to Shakespeare. The Bard’s plays have been made into many movies. However, when one interprets the plays a-new, reimagines them cinematically, and refreshes them for contemporary audiences, an adaptation offers a fascinating gateway for audiences to see a director’s distinct vision. Just look at how differently Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh interpret Henry V. Or take Akira Kurosawa’s re-invention of King Lear as a samurai epic in Ran. Ditto Julie Taymor imagining Titus with theatrical flair, or Orson Welles conflating multiple Falstaff plays to conjure perhaps the ultimate Shakespeare-on-film feat with Chimes at Midnight. Those directors stake definitive claims on Shakespeare with their films. Now Coen plants his sword firmly in Macbeth.