Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A stark and powerful 'Macbeth'


   The Tragedy of Macbeth is a film from a Coen brother.
    I put it that way because director Joel Coen takes on  Shakespeare with The Tragedy of Macbeth and, yes, it feels weird to talk about a film with the name Coen attached without following with the word "brothers."
    The result of Joel Coen's solo effort is visually striking, intense, and bursting with fury.
     Employing an old-time aspect ratio and cutting through dark swaths with paths of white light, Coen simplifies the movie’s environment while simultaneously amping up its power.
     He opts for minimal but suggestive design. A castle still feels like a castle — albeit one you might find in an Ingmar Bergman film.
     I begin there because what stayed with me about Coen’s movie was its atmosphere and visual poetry, the way Coen married Shakespeare and back-and-white imagery of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.
    Coen and his team allow Macbeth to strike its own pose. And I don't mean "pose" in a pejorative sense, I mean it the sense of a movie that has the power of a starkly drawn silhouette.
    Coen isn’t trying to make Macbeth feel “real;” he bends cinematic convention to allow Shakespeare’s story and language a place where tragedy gathers force.
    A grizzled Denzel Washington provides the centerpiece of the drama. Washington doesn’t underline the play's great monologues  ("Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow"). You won’t catch him orating; he delivers the dialogue as if it were his own speech.
    Washington's performance brims with emotional undercurrents, perhaps driven by the guilt that accrues to Macbeth as a result of killing his king (Brendan Gleeson) and then slaughtering rivals and their families. He even turns on his best friend and ally Banquo, a fine Bertie Carvel.
    Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) encourages Macbeth in his murderous ways, prompted by the king’s announcement that he plans to make his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) his successor. 
    Washington makes Macbeth's attitude less a matter of naked ambition than of reaction to a slight: Macbeth, who looks ready for an AARP membership, fought tirelessly for the king and never got his proper reward. If his anger has a modern equivalent, it's getting passed over for a promotion someone thought he had earned.
    All the actors rise to the occasion. Corey Hawkins makes a fine Macduff, perhaps the best and most human of the characters.
    Coen does a wonderful job with a bizarre and unforgettable performance from Kathryn Hunter as the witch who offers her prediction: Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and then king. Coen suggests the presence of Shakespeare's three witches by using a reflecting pool and adding ominous circling crows. 
   Hunter's performance is haunting enough to take the place of a half dozen witches, had Shakespeare wanted to increase their number.
   Coen’s Macbeth seldom finds itself idling and, thanks to a pared-down text, moves quickly toward a conclusion in which he makes it clear that, for him, Macbeth speaks loudly about dark forces that can be unleashed but seldom controlled.  
   This Macbeth screams when it needs to scream.

No comments: