The Tragedy of Macbeth carries considerable weight as the closing night gala of the London Film Festival. This lavish, high-anticipated adaptation was gorgeously designed and such frequent use of close-ups made it feel intimate in spite of its epic scale. And although the Scottish Play is Shakespeare’s briefest tragedy, the crew adds enough gravitas to the production to span the length of an epic.
However, knowledge of the text is almost a prerequisite and I’ve taken a few days to write up this review as it’s not a film I feel viewers can take lightly. On the one hand, we have a fantastic lineup: as well as Coen and McDormand, Denzel Washington takes the lead, with a host of talent. We have elaborate sets, and the whole production is shot in cool monochrome, adding to the sense of stark intensity, a black-and-white setting for a (conversely) morally ambiguous narrative. But it also feels impenetrable at times, waylaid in a fantasy wasteland that few who aren’t already at home in the play may find themselves losing the path.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Director: Joel Coen
Release date: October 17, 2021 (LFF)
To recap the story, Macbeth (Washington) is a bloodthirsty general who returns victorious from battle. On his return, he meets with three Weird Sisters (witches, played by Kathryn Hunter), who prophesy that he will be king of Scotland. He shares this with his wife, Lady Macbeth (McDormand), who plots to assassinate the current monarch Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). But Duncan’s ally Macduff (Corey Hawkins) discovers the murder and he flees the country, leaving the throne wide open.
Meanwhile, Macbeth’s close friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel) becomes suspicious, so Macbeth ruthlessly has him murdered. On a second visit to the witches, Macbeth hears more prophesies, but in England, Duncan’s eldest son Malcolm hatches a plan with Macduff to take back the throne. Macbeth retaliates with devastating consequences to Macduff’s family (even doomed, they’re played by the brilliant Moses Ingram and Ethan Hutchison). But while Macbeth questions his own sanity with visions and hallucinations in the company of others, to their horror, Lady Macbeth finally loses her life when she is overwhelmed by guilt. In a final push, Malcolm’s effort is successful and he ousts the murderous usurper from the throne of Scotland.
This is the fourth of A24’s releases at the London Film Festival this year, after the insanity of Lamb; Joanna Hogg’s thoughtful Souvenir Part II; and Mike Mills’ acclaimed C’mon C’mon. Come for Joel Coen in his solo directorial debut, opposite Frances McDormand: partners in life and creativity, they are working on their ninth collaboration. Stay to be educated in a classic you’ve not read since your school days.
Macbeth felt jagged and angular in the way it’s been shot. The entirety of the film, with the exception of an exterior scene taking place in the movie and during the final scene, was shot on an LA soundscape, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has commented on the difference this makes. Comparisons to The Green Knight are bound to be plentiful, and the similarities between Coen’s moody monochrome drama and David Lowrey’s recent fantasy feature are deserved. Aside from their common ground in subject matter — the main similarity is that The Green Knight is Arthurian legend, and Macbeth is a fable — their common temperament bring them closer together.
But Coen also achieves his own style, an off-shoot of years of collaboration with his brother. While they are always brimming with ideas — even Hail Caesar! has so many subplots, it could be condensed into a serial — he executes a straightforward adaptation that will satisfy English teachers. This clean, class-friendly adaptation is a boon. He seems conscious to film close to the actors’ faces, capturing every facial expression, and the result of one of both claustrophobia and fraught emotions, of characters having narrow visions and failing to see their place in the wider picture, which is of course, exactly as the characters in the 1606 play were intended to be.
A few press delegates were lucky to attend the press conference for The Tragedy of Macbeth in London, and it was insightful to hear from the acclaimed talent behind the film. The panelists included director Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who had previously worked with the Coens on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). There were also the prominent cast members Bertie Carvel, Corey Hawkins, Kathryn Hunter, British actor Alex Hassell, and Harry Melling.
We gained an insight into the production’s delays throughout covid, and the fact that shooting took place over just 36 days (give or take three weeks, unpaid, to rehearse). The panelists gave the impression that they were unsure what the finished product would be once they started shooting, and as Coen and McDormand endorsed, rehearsal and shooting was as much a process of discovery as it was of practising well-known material.
Coen cited Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) as a strong influence on the adaptation, as well as Trevor Nunn’s 1979 take, and Orson Welles’ seminal film in 1948. Drawing on all of these influences, he was inspired by what each director had kept in and cut, and wanted to show that he put his own spin on a well-known and often-taught text. But I wonder if this comparatively tame stage-to-screen adaptation felt a bit lacklustre compared to some of the more exotic versions that have previously surfaced.
Nevertheless, we also have a mixed cast, with British and American actors, white actors and people of colour. Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is the leading man, but in a close second is the untrustworthy Macduff (played by Corey Hawkins, in a change of pace from his recent appearance in In The Heights.) The eclectic mix of players offers striking performances and you can imagine the group taking to the stage, so well-received were their performances.
Playing the three Weird Sisters (or is she just one?) is Kathryn Hunter, a wonderfully flexible and physical actor who has previously played roles such as King Lear. She spoke about her commitment to the role and the physical demands of playing such iconic characters. Appearing in the opening moments of the film, her contorted, almost gender-neutral portrayal of the witches aptly sets the tone of the film: an eerie, uncanny world in which anything could happen.
There are a few digressions from the text (Lady Macbeth’s demise seems to be the most prominent example), but since Coen has so faithfully adhered to the script, you can allow him the artistic amends. He also leaves the ending scene wide open to interpretation, with a prominent figure riding away with his hostage. As Coen mentioned in his interview, it both ends and starts the film anew: it’s an important way of leaving viewers to let their imaginations speculate about what could happen next.
On the whole, The Tragedy of Macbeth was a commendable adaptation and used its source material well, which is an achievement for a first-time solo director. As Coen remarked, it will one day feel like an aged piece and a product of its time, but it’s about capturing the present moment. I imagine The Tragedy of Macbeth will find its audience with the existing A24 fanbase and with Shakespeare enthusiasts due to its arthouse sensibilities. But outside of these circles, I suspect it’s going to be something of an acquired taste as its style is so elevated.