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The Tragedy of Macbeth

***
2021

‘…Washington captures the nobility of Macbeth, but not the hubris or the venality…’

One has to assume Ethan Coen didn’t fancy taking part in his brother’s new version of Macbeth. It’s also easy to imagine why brother Joel went ahead with the project, given that he’s been married to Frances McDormand since 1984, and she plays the plum role of Lady Macbeth here; there’s nothing like an ambitious wife to focus a man’s mind on the task in hand. Joel Coen’s version of William Shakespeare’s Scottish play, renamed The Tragedy of Macbeth, has a big star in the title role, Denzel Washington, but unlikely to reach a wide audience due to some strange and unnatural decisions by Coen himself.

Firstly, the film is presented in stark black and white, always a great way to send a high percentage of your potential audience in search of alternative entertainment. Secondly, it’s all shot in a 1940’s/50’s manner, with obvious studio sets and simple compositions; it looks much like an Orson Welles/ Mercury Theatre production, cool for cineastes, but not attractive to those keen on any kind of realism. There’s Carl Dreyer–levels of mist, lots of expressionist shadows and sharp angles, little spectacle and few outdoors scenes other than those shrouded in mist. Much like Justin Kurtzel’s ultra-drab 2016 version, we’re frequently in tents rather than intense, giving this a moody yet rather cheap Renaissance Fair vibe.

You probably know the story by now; Macbeth comes home from battle, gets passed over for his rightful place in the pecking order, gets bad advice from meddling contortionist witches and plots with his wife to kill the king, a short-cut to glory that does not go well for him. Washington captures the nobility of Macbeth, but not the hubris or the venality. McDormand is not surprisingly firing on all cylinders as Lady Macbeth, but largely drops out of the film as the story progresses along familiar lines, and none of the support make any impression. The violence is done with the edge you’d expect from A24, but that brittleness does not extend to the hammy monologing and very theatrical staging.

While potentially something of a coup for Apple TV in terms of awards traction, The Tragedy of Macbeth does not have the wit, panache or style of most of the Coen Brothers projects; it’s flat, faithful, and yet uncreative. Some striking moments, such as Macbeth seeing the dagger as a door-handle, reflect the intelligence of the creators, but such insights are fleeting, and the real tragedy of this Macbeth is that it’s much less cinematic than the 1971 film version, still the best version of the Scottish play to date. And rather than paying tribute to old movie styles, in today’s ethnically sensitive times, it would be great to see a version of Macbeth that doesn’t ignore the history or the Scottishness; Sean Connery’s version (link below) knocks Washington’s into a cocked hat.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is in UK and US cinemas now, on Apple TV from Jan 14th 2022.

 

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  1. McDormand is not Scottish even though her name would suggest that possibility and neither is Denzil. Too much cultural appropriation by the sounds of it. My vote is for Connery. The trailer looks like it’s made for getting awards rather than audiences. Nope.

    • Pithy take-down! Macbeth has been translated into everything from Throne of Blood to Macbeth PA, and the role can be played by anyone. I’m just peeved that when so many texts are now connected to the culture that they came from, Macbeth is always in a mental hospital. Or in Baltimore. Or 1950’s Hollywood. There’s a 1997 version with Jason Connery which isn’t too great, but at least shot in Scotland; it’s a text that must always be presented shorn of local politics. Sigh.

  2. The idea of it being in b/w actually appeals to me. However, if it’s in 4:3 format, that is an immediate n0-n0! I upgraded to a widescreen years ago for a reason :-/

    • Well, because most films and even today’s tv shows look best in widescreen format. If they buried this under a rock in a forest, they couldn’t do any more to alienate potential viewers than this…

        • Not at all. I’m sure working with Coen and McDormand would suggest to DW that he wouldn’t need an Equalizer-style paycheck this time around. This is a passion project, just one that I’m not very passionate about…

  3. It lasted a week in the local arthouse so audiences appear thin on the ground. It’s always difficult to do something new with Shakespeare but doing something so old seems to jar. Big fan of Denzel but can’t see me taking out a subscription to Apple just to catch this.

    • Denzel is great in many, many things, but this production is not overstuffed with ideas, although there are a few good ones. It’s not awful, but it ain’t going to reach many people who aren’t seriously interested in seeing this play. I’m always amazed at how many film-makers think black and white helps engage an audience, it’s quite the opposite from what I can see.

  4. Well that’s sad to hear. I’m sure I’ll catch it at some point anyway but I’m not looking forward to it as much now. Seems to have got a good reception though. Metacritic rates it as receiving “universal acclaim.” Maybe you’re just pulling a Paddington here . . .

    • Unlike some other critics, I’ve rated it Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, good enough for a three stars, but still not the great version that the play deserves. I’m not sure what the point of making it look like it was made in a 1950’s studio would be, it’s quite alienating and distracting from the text. I’ll exit, pursued by a bear….

        • What? There’s a moose, loose, aboot this hoose?

          Academy ratio is very trendy these days, certainly a big draw if you like seeing massive patches of black on your tv screen.

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