Please note: Spoilers ahead.
In his first solo film as director, Joel Coen stays respectful to a classic text even as he makes it his own. The Tragedy of Macbeth (out on Apple TV+) closely follows events detailed in the William Shakespeare play. Every line in the movie is as written by Shakespeare.
What Coen lends to his production is an Expressionist quality that brings out the play’s themes of ambition, treachery, predestination, guilt and madness.
Joel Coen has always co-directed films along with his brother Ethan Coen. Joel Coen’s first solo venture stars Denzel Washington as the Thane of Glamis, who, reacting to a prophecy by three witches and the urging of his wife, kills the Scottish king Duncan and usurps the throne. Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) initially provokes her husband into slaying Duncan (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”) but is later alarmed by Macbeth’s behavioural changes and haunted by her role in the regicide.
Like Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which comprises vivid tableaux and Noh theatre-influenced elements in the staging and performances, Joel Coen’s version has a distinctive visual style. The stark monochrome cinematography, more silver than white and grey than black, is by Bruno Delbonnel. The production design (by Stephen Dechant) and costumes (by Mary Zophres) are guided by a minimalistic and severe aesthetic that harks back to the early years of cinema.
The performances by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand have attracted praise and nominations, including possible Oscar nods. The greatest performer in The Tragedy of Macbeth is arguably Joel Coen himself. Here are seven scenes that illustrate the ways in which Coen takes a stage production and converts it into a work of cinema.
The first prophecy
Bruno Delbonnel has shot the film with a digital camera in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The square-ish frames emphasise the closeness or distance of characters and elements to the camera. In the early portions of the film, the camera is placed squarely in the centre of the action, with characters walking towards it or standing in front of it.
The effect is especially stark in the sequence that introduces the witch. Like Throne of Blood, Coen uses a single actor to portray the character. The witch has two lookalike sisters – all played to chilling effect by Kathryn Hunter.
The British theatre actor and director initially has the screen to herself as she lays out Macbeth’s seemingly pre-destined fate. Hunter acts out her prophecy on a soundstage filled with sand and fog – a hat-tip to Kurosawa’s film, perhaps?
Part for the whole: Macbeth’s castle
The austere sets point to the stage origins of the source material. The Tragedy of Macbeth has been filmed entirely on soundstages in a studio. Coen also uses a part-for-the-whole approach throughout. For instance, the shadows of trees suggest a tent pitched in a forest.
Similarly, Macbeth’s castle is a series of long and bare corridors with sharp angles and high windows. Macbeth and his wife walk up and down these lengths, plotting “murder most foul”.
The slaying of Duncan
Very long is the corridor that leads Macbeth to regicide. He stands at one end of it, wondering whether he is imagining a dagger that beckons him to commit the act. At the other end is a door with a single light emanating from it – in the shape of a dagger.
Duncan’s death is discovered
This showboating sequence is packed with geometrical compositions that emphasise the ascent and descent of Macbeth. The king’s room is at the top of a flight of stairs. Below, Macbeth’s general Banquo (Bertie Carvel), Lady Macbeth and Duncan’s son Malcolm (Henry Melling) receive Macbeth’s version of events. Malcom wisely flees the castle soon after.
The targeting of Banquo and his son
The witches have also predicted that Banquo’s heir will succeed the childless Macbeth. Taking no chances, Macbeth orders the murders of Banquo and his young son Fleance (Lucas Barker).
The setting is a bare-bones hut at the intersection of a forked path. The moon is hidden being dark clouds. Banquo perishes, but his son manages to escape and finds shelter in a field, pursued by Macbeth’s aide Ross (Alex Hassell). It’s a terrifying scene reminiscent of Charles Laughton’s Expressionist crime drama The Night of the Hunter (1955).
The second prophecy
Kathryn Hunter returns with her sisters for the second prophecy that will prove to be the undoing of Macbeth. As he sits by himself in his castle in Dunsinane, the witches perch on the rafters above, from where they rain down the next set of predictions.
Macbeth finds himself surrounded by a pool of water, whose depths assure him that he will not be attacked by anybody who is not born of a woman and will be safe until the Birnam Wood rises up and approaches Dunsinane. It is as foretold – the witches are never wrong.
Wracked by remorse, Lady Macbeth begins to act out her neuroses while sleepwalking. Her own descent matches the scene of the discovery of Duncan’s body. It’s her turn to be at the top of the stairs, from where the only way is down.
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