The poet John Berryman wrote of Macbeth that “there is no other Shakespearean tragedy so desolate, and this desolation is transmitted to us through the wonderful imagination of its hero.” The world of the play — a violent, haunted patch of land called Scotland — is as dark and frightening as anywhere in literature or horror movies. This is not so much about the resident witches as it is about the total reversal of the moral system. “Justice is dirty and wrong is just.” Confidence is an invitation to betrayal. Love can be a criminal pact or a motive for revenge. Strength is not bounded by mercy.
Macbeth himself, the noble who assumed the Scottish throne after killing the king whom he so courageously served, embodies this nihilism as it was destroyed by it. The evil he does – ordering the murder of innocent people and the death of his closest companions – is appalling even by the standards of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Still, Berryman marvels, “He doesn’t lose the sympathy of the audience or readers.” As Macbeth’s crimes escalate, his suffering increases and this fantastic fantasy grows more complex and inventive. His inevitable death promises punishment for his transgressions and relief from his torment. It can also leave the audience feeling strangely upset.
Director Joel Coen’s shimmering, dagger-sharp play — for which its full title, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — evokes a scene of appropriate desolation, a world of deep shadows and stark negative space. People wander through empty stone corridors or across ruined heights, surveyed at crooked corners or from above to emphasize their alienation from one another. Sometimes Carter Burwell’s run-of-the-mill chainsaws look like birds of prey, and literal crows disrupt bleak box-frames with bursts of nightmarish cacophony.
For filmmakers, Shakespeare can be both a challenge and a crutch. If the pictures omit the words, you have failed. But to build a cinematic space in which language can breathe – where both the ancient weirdness and the timelessness of poetry appear – requires a certain amount of daring. Quinn’s black and white compositions (cinematographer Bruno Delponnell) and stark, angled sets (production designer Stéphane Deschant) make reference to Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, two of Shakespeare’s greatest films of the 20th century. The effect is to emphasize the essential unrealism of a play that has always been, in its own words, alienated.
As noted by many critics, he is at the same time disturbingly sharp in his understanding of human psychology. Macbeth is therefore the quintessential actor’s play, even if the actors are notorious for superstitions about the pronunciation of her name. And Coen’s version is, above all, a triumph in casting.
Which I mean: Denzel Washington. It’s not just him, anyway: The collection of duos, wives, murderers, hired servants, witches, and children is pretty much impeccable. Catherine Hunter is honestly another world like all three shape-shifting and quiet sisters. Stephen Root, in one scene as Porter, elevates the grim forensic work of King’s murder and its aftermath into the realm of knockout farce. Alex Hussle plays Ross as the perfect archetype of gentle sarcasm, always obliging and never to be trusted. Banquo by Bertie Carvel’s and MacDuff by Corey Hawkins carry the burden of human fitness with proper feel.
I could go on – each scene is a little class in the craft of acting – but “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is actually a portrait of a power couple. Madness manifests itself in different ways. Mrs. Macbeth is sometimes reduced to Frances McDormand as a caricature of the evil female: ambitious, complicit, and skilled at manipulating her reluctant husband. McDormand absorbs the Machiavellian root of the character’s impulses, and the cold pragmatism that follows it. But Lady Macbeth is also passionate, not only for the crown of Scotland, but also for the man who will wear it. Her unique and charming devotion to him is.
The Macbeths may be ruthless political planners, but there is a tenderness among them that disarms them, and this makes them livelier and more interesting than the more cautious and diligent politicians around them. Which brings me back to Washington, whose path is astonishing to see from the timid, weary soldier to the delirious soldier who burns himself.
While Lady Macbeth has made the moral calculations beforehand – justifying the murder of Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) even though she knows it cannot be justified – her husband does not realize the gravity of the crime until after the fact. Macbeth’s guilt is part of what drives him toward more murder (“blood will be blood”), and Washington somehow combines his surging bloodthirstiness with desperation. The man is immediately active with violence and is afraid of his appetite for him.
Washington’s voice, as ever, is a marvel. He looks, cheers, mumbles, babbles, summons thunderstorms of eloquence from intimate whispers. The physicality of his performance is equally impressive, from his first appearance, trudging through the mist, to his final burst of doomed, angry chaos.
The “magnificent imagination of the hero” is what reveals the deep desolation of “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, but also what makes up for the play’s utter gloom. There is no comfort in Quinn’s vision, but his rigor — and Washington’s liveliness — is nothing short of exhilarating.
The tragedy of Macbeth
Rated R. blood would be blood. Show duration: 1 hour and 45 minutes. in theatres.