Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth highlights how easily human beings can be lured into catastrophic delusion. By Alison Croggon.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Credit: Apple TV+

Nothing becomes Orson Welles’ sometimes unintentionally hilarious 1948 film of Macbeth so much as its opening scene. A sky full of clouds segues, via a vision of three hags silhouetted on a crag, into the vapour of a bubbling cauldron that swallows the entire screen. It’s a cue that Joel Coen amply expands in his adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Filmed in stark black and white, Coen’s Macbeth often has the quality of a photographic negative. From the white-on-black opening text, over which we hear the witches whispering the first lines of the play, the screen bleeds white, resolving into perspectiveless clouds or smoke, through which wheel two circling crows. On Coen’s screen, white defeats perception as effectively as any shadow: actors vanish into fog or behind the glare of spotlights. Whiteness is the other wing of the play’s pervasive night, the darkness that hides the Macbeths’ murderous ambition.

Given Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated casting in the title role, it’s a teasing metaphor that hints at the dazzling self-deceptions and erasures of racialised whiteness. That slippage was certainly germane in the conversation while making the film. In an interview in Variety, Washington recalls saying to Coen: “Let’s talk about the black and white of it all.” “Coen began to respond, ‘Well, you’re Black …’ before Washington stopped him. ‘No, no, no,’ he interrupted. ‘I’m talking about you shooting in black and white!’ ”

This suggestive ambiguity is emblematic of this film’s chilly but powerful formalism, Coen’s first Shakespearean adaptation and his first directorial venture without his brother, Ethan. Although it’s steeped in various cinematic and theatrical traditions, it’s a fresh and boldly contemporary take. Reading the text afterwards, I was surprised by how little Coen had fiddled with the play: a few cuts within scenes, a few lines reassigned to other characters. Yet it feels peculiarly redolent of contemporary political horror, a sense of catastrophic action manipulated by hidden and unreadable mechanisms.

As is often noted, Macbeth – the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies – is remarkably filmable. Events move with brutal swiftness, from Macbeth’s first encounter with the three witches after triumphing in battle to his inevitable bloody overthrow. It’s arguably the darkest of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, which might explain Coen’s desire to adapt it: there’s nary a chink of light anywhere. As the Shakespearean critic Jan Kott comments, Macbeth is history as nightmare: not a grand cyclical mechanism by which power replicates itself but rather the infection of a murderous insanity.

There have been many notable screen adaptations, from Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 samurai adaptation Throne of Blood to Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, co-adapted with Kenneth Tynan. Coen’s film can almost be read through its dialogue with earlier versions – his foregrounding of the role of Ross as a key presence in the action, for instance, echoes how it was treated by Tynan and Polanski – as well as recalling something of the gelid austerity of Peter Brook’s 1970 King Lear. It’s interesting, however, that the most notable recent film – Justin Kurzel’s 2015 version, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – is almost the polar opposite of Coen’s.

Kurzel filmed Macbeth as a historical drama, set in the 1100s. He paid painstaking attention to naturalistic detail, offsetting the intimate bloodiness of the action with the dramatic landscapes of the Isle of Skye. The witches here were ordinary women, hedge witches whose vocation was only marked by their facial scarification, and the performances – all excellent renderings of Shakespeare’s poetic language – delivered the dialogue as domestic and familiar.

The Macbeths were furnished with some scene-setting biography – the opening showed them burying their small child, and Macbeth was haunted by a boy soldier who died in the astonishingly filmed opening battle – and these silent tableaus became the informing traumas of what followed. Kurzel’s Macbeths were young, beautiful and ambitious, driven by passions that culminated in a literal blaze – the final scenes were filmed against a background of flaming trees and smoke that evoked the terror of Australian bushfires.

This is worlds away from the cold architectures of Coen’s film. As its title suggests – Coen opts for the full Shakespearean name, The Tragedy of Macbeth – this film takes place in the poetic space of theatre and is filmed entirely on sound stages. Stefan Dechant’s clean Modernist sets, drawing from German Expressionism and the symbolic structures of early-20th-century theatre designer and theorist Edward Gordon Craig, never tempt us into the seductions of the apparently real.

Bruno Delbonnel shoots the film in  1.37:1 aspect ratio and shifts perspective constantly as the action unfolds across geometric courtyards, perspectival stairways, colonnades with de Chirico arches, and heaths as blasted as nuclear wastelands. Unsettlingly, you can seldom trace a source of light, and Macbeth’s castle, like a building in a dream, transforms unnervingly: rooms turn into cauldrons, trees appear where columns were.

This sense of psychic, rather than physical, space is heightened by Carter Burwell’s soundscape, where knocking on a door, footsteps on stone or the dripping of blood or water sound like blows of doom. The effect is to unhome the horror, to polish its metaphors up with uneasy clarity.

Washington’s Macbeth is a career soldier towards the end of his life, driven by the disappointment of thwarted ambition rather than the appetite we see in Fassbender’s. We don’t know if he and Lady Macbeth (a compelling Frances McDormand) have had children that died; we do know – from Lady Macbeth’s scornful “I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” – that she has borne them. The implication here, if anything, is that her baby was not Macbeth’s and that their marriage is childless. In Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), for what it’s worth, Gruoch – the historical Lady Macbeth – has a son by a former husband.

It makes for an anti-romance that turns on Banquo’s line: “... oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths; / Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s / In deepest consequence.” The driving disquiet in the film is how it renders the ease with which human beings can be seduced into delusion, lured step by step until suddenly they are mired in “deepest consequence”, unable to return.

What’s fascinating in Washington and McDormand’s performances – both understated and the more powerful for it – is how the irrevocable act of Duncan’s murder, blaspheming against laws of kinship, loyalty and hospitality, is so clearly also a murder of the self. We see in both their faces the sudden severance of love and friendship, an unhealing wound that forbids them the ease of human relationship. The atrocities that follow – the murder of friends and children, a kingdom’s tyranny – are merely inevitable.

Behind atrocity, of course, are the manipulative “instruments of darkness”. I’m not sure I’ve seen the supernatural forces in Macbeth rendered so well; the film generates a genuine sense of skin-creeping uncanniness. This is due in no small part to Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary performance as all three witches.

Hunter’s physicality draws from the carrion crows that constantly haunt the screen: she twists her body into winglike twitches or gazes malignantly out of a tangle of bony limbs. Macbeth sees her first as a single, black-cloaked figure standing by the side of a large puddle, corpses of soldiers dimly visible in the mist behind her. When the chorus begins, suddenly there are three of her, two reflected in the pool beneath her feet. A moment later and three figures are standing on the heath.

Her avatar in the unfolding events is the functionary Ross, played with a sure, reptilian grace by Alex Hassell. He is everywhere – at Duncan’s shoulder, then with Malcolm in England; with Lady Macduff before she is killed; with Banquo’s murderers; gliding up the stairs towards a despairing Lady Macbeth before she throws herself down.

Ross is not so much the mover of events as their courteously enabling henchman. But, as this film’s artifice always reminds us, these malignities aren’t prompted by exterior forces: Macbeth’s atrocities already slept within him, awaiting the kindling of ambition, greed and chance. He knew better, and he acted anyway, and then it was too late. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth is showing on Apple TV+.



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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "A heart so white".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.

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