The Tragedy of Macbeth: Joel Coen’s Borrowed Robes

How many times has Great Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane? In Macbeth’s world, it is a once in a lifetime event, so ridiculous even in its suggestion that it all but assures the usurper’s invulnerability. In our world, on the silver screen, it comes nearly as frequently as the Olympics. Like select other timeless classics, Shakespeare’s Scottish Play needs to no justification to earn yet another cinematic depiction. We accept Burnham Wood’s inevitable march just as we accept Jonathan Harker’s arduous journey to sell a bit of real estate to a thirsty count. Audiences are assuredly no longer surprised or delighted at either occurrence, but there is a pleasure there, nonetheless. Interpretation and adaptation are the name of the game, and some of cinema’s greatest directors have made such sport of Macbeth. Joel Coen, in his first directorial effort without his brother Ethan, has thrown his own hat in the ring. The result? A striking effort that nonetheless is perhaps the first Macbeth adaptation that can be said to be not just adapting the play itself, but readapting elements of the other great adaptations. In some respects, The Tragedy of Macbeth is something of a greatest hits compilation; we have the fog-choked stillness and storms of ominous ravens from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), the surreal stage-bound atmosphere of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), and the radical reinterpretation of minor characters and invented epilogue of Roman Polanski’s grim and cyclical Macbeth (1971). What is most surprising about this effort, coming from one of the most identifiable voices in film today, his how little there is of Coen’s own. Touches of the “Coen Brothers’” wry humor and quirkiness shine through, but this is very much a film dressed in borrowed robes. They are very fine robes to borrow, but borrowed nonetheless, and sometimes sit uneasily upon their wearer.

Kathryn Hunter as one of the three witches in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

It’s a shame the film isn’t always the most confident in its own identity, as the unique elements it brings to this telling are some of its strongest. Kathryn Hunter’s performance as the witches is the first such element that emerges from the blanketing of fog to land such a favorable impression. As you may have surmised by my phrasing, Hunter plays all three of the witches who, in this version, are less three distinct individuals and more (as suggested by their first appearance in a murky pond) reflections of one individual. Hunter’s froggy voice and rubber-jointed limbs make for a jolting introduction that perfectly captures Coen’s blend of offbeat humor and grim tension, and she continues to jolt and amuse every time the witches pop up.

Where this film’s take on the witches feels wholly original (at least in the sphere of adaptation), its recontextualization of Ross, a minor character as written in the play, as a Machiavellian schemer is one of the aforementioned “borrowed robes.” In this case, the film’s take on Ross is borrowed from Polanski’s adaptation. In Polanski’s film the adjustment was subtle, giving Ross small bits of action that are not contradictory to the events of the play as written but develop his character as one of interest and expand upon that version’s interpretation of the play’s themes. Coen takes this characterization further and, despite still largely adhering to the dialogue of the play, creates entirely new scenes for the character that place him as a major actor in the events. While I’m certainly not a strict purest when it comes to adapting Shakespeare to the screen, especially when this particular play has been adapted so many times, the Ross subplot as portrayed here rebalances the story in a way I’m not sure serves the narrative. Alex Hassell is finely cast as the scheming Ross, but he becomes such a focus of the narrative that other, more significant characters, seem to recede as the camera focuses evermore on his piercing gaze.

Alex Hassell as the film-consuming Ross.

In all the adaptations of Macbeth I’ve seen, regardless of their relative strengths and weaknesses, they all have a shared reverence for the crucial part of Lady Macbeth. Not only is Frances McDormand one of the finest actors working today, but it was partly her desire to play the role of Lady Macbeth that led Coen to embark on this project — which makes it even more surprising that her portrayal is swallowed by the rest of this film. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth seems to have given a good deal of her tenacity and ambition to Ross, and in their wake leaving a more empathetic, but dull, take on the character. Lady Macbeth is a large character and benefits a large performance — but here she is diluted and, by the film’s end, feels inconsequential in ways not intended by the character’s own deterioration. Most curiously, her exit from the narrative is played only to further the narrative of Ross who, by the closing moments of the film, has cannibalized the rest of the narrative’s thunder.

Fortunately, I cannot levy the same criticisms at Denzel Washington’s Macbeth. His world-weary performance as an aged Macbeth that segues into a blustering take on a man whose last desperate grasp at a legacy is crumbling around him, is a pleasure to watch. It is one of the film’s most confident creative strokes and one that pays dividends. While it does a disservice to the strong performances that surround him to suggest that Washington carries the film, he is certainly the axis upon which the other strong elements rest. This only makes it more of a shame that his dynamic with Lady Macbeth is not as strong as it might have been, as Macbeth’s early passivity should be sharply needled by Lady Macbeth. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth does needle, but there is a curious lack of conviction, and her famous soliloquy feels as gentle as the fade out of the scene. One of the finest scenes in the film does however feature good interplay between the characters: as Macbeth oversells his zeal to slaughter the King’s alleged murderers, he struts down a long staircase to a crowd that’s gathered around an increasingly distressed Lady Macbeth who is unable to silence her husband in front of the witnesses. It’s a dynamic scene that is both performatively strong, and creatively executed to bring the most out of the character dynamics at play within it. It made me yearn for more like it.

Denzel Washington gives a memorable turn in the titular role.

Outside of a few punctuation notes, the film largely favors static closeups and wide shots. They are all immaculately lit and highlight the striking production design and nuances of the performers, but it also gives the impression the film has one foot planted on the stage and the other in the world of cinema. Most of its playfulness with the cinematic language comes from the many dissolves it uses between scenes and left me wanting for an experience that made fuller use of the unique attributes of the medium to come into its own more as an adaptation. It’s one thing to be beautiful to look at, but another to strike deeply at one’s emotions, and this Macbeth frequently impressed me but seldom stirred me. It is a cold and calculating film, where stillness and shadow mean more than the blood spilled, or lives ruined. It’s perhaps no wonder that Ross becomes the focal point.

The film, again echoing the Polanski version, ends with a grim harbinger of cyclicality. With perhaps its most purely visual storytelling, the film says: “this story will be told again.” And it will be, again and again. But as Birnam wood marches yet again on Dunsinane will this Macbeth stand tall amongst its striking forebears, or will it simply be lost to the fog of history? My guess is something in between.   


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