When I was first introduced to the original Star Trek television series, it was on a 13” inch black and white television. The apparent lack of colors was noticeable. Yet, there was an idea that contrast plays a critical role in how viewers, in this case, an eight or nine-year-old child, might interpret the depth of that composition; the striking tone struck in the images. What does Star Trek have to do with Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, you might ask?
Besides its inclusion in Nicholas Meyer’s entries into the film series and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, not much. It is the experience we seek; the tone set through the images. Coen, who normally co-creates his movies with his brother, Ethan, offers us a solo effort in The Tragedy of Macbeth, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic story of a disillusioned general who believes that he is the next King of Scotland.
As Lord Macbeth, Denzel Washington electrifies the screen with his presence. From the opening frame of the gorgeously shot murky swamp where three witches (played by Kathryn Hunter) foretell the lord’s future, ghastly shapes and animals fill the frames. Washington’s chops as an actor are primarily action-oriented films. The quiet, not necessarily shy actor offers wonderment and breadth of range as the tragic character caught in his trappings, navigating the treachery of his ambitions. Ironically, the three witches could serve as the equivalent of the three ghosts, that of past, present, and, future as they guide Scrooge toward his epoch. This effect is more a result of the timing of the film’s release rather than a byproduct of the interpretation.
This lord is not able to countenance his efforts on his own. Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is there to support him in his journey of regicide. More than Washington, McDormand continues to amaze me with her range. Both actors are steadfast in their approach, but their dramatic timing is crucial to believe that they are the Lord and Lady Macbeth, who dupe each other to newfound glories. As told by Coen, the tragic journey is nothing without these two actors.
They disappear into their roles, yet we are acutely aware that Washington and McDormand are in front of us. They mutually beckon us into their respective worlds, and we willingly accept that invitation. Coen purposely shot the film on sound stages, evoking the two-dimensionality of the world created by Shakespeare, allowing us to appreciate their performances, their powerful tragedy all that much more.
Brendan Gleeson presides over Scotland as King Duncan, an arrogant man. Gleeson relishes the opportunity to play the role. His dealings with Macbeth are pointed and purposeful, reminding me of McGoohan’s take on King Edward I from Braveheart. Corey Hawkins’ strength imbues Macduff, the Thane of Fife, married to Lady Macduff (Moses Ingram). Macduff’s death is visceral, fiercely loyal to the king; Hawkins’ performance is sublime.
Not since Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse have I been so transfixed by native black and white cinematography (though I just remembered the brilliance of Belfast’s cinematography.) Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography in The Tragedy of Macbeth is even more transfixing. Coen understands the material, the characters, their marks. Delbonnel sets the relentless tone. We never tire of the images. Both films share a respective framing in 4:3, limiting the movement on the screen, creating a narrow focus, drawing our eyes toward the characters and their actions, bringing the tone into further focus. The drama is given clarity in the visual aspect, an unexpected sharpness heightening the tragedy. It is worthy of the accolades received so far and, I imagine, more to come.
Joel Coen’s adaptation of Macbeth is brilliantly told through the eyes of Denzel Washington’s Lord Macbeth and Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth; they are there for our pleasure. It is the technical craft that sells the story.
While you check out The Tragedy of Macbeth now in theaters starting Christmas Day and on Apple TV+ starting January 14th, I’m going to refamiliarize myself with Shakespeare’s tragic story.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Directed by Joel Coen
Screenplay by Joel Coen, based on Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Bertie Carvel, Alex Hassell, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Brendan Gleeson
R, 105 minutes, A24/Apple TV+