In more than 30 years of refracting other movies through his irony-tinged sensibility, Joel Coen has never made anything as earnest, stark and somber as The Tragedy of Macbeth, which stars his wife Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth and Denzel Washington as the ambition-wracked Thane of Cawdor.
Technically dazzling if emotionally unengaging, the Shakespeare adaptation will play briefly in theaters starting Christmas Day ahead of a January 14 release on Apple TV+. Television is not the place to see this beautiful but exacting film, and many viewers will lose interest or nod off. The title character may murder sleep, but Coen’s film facilitates it.
The project (done without the participation of Coen’s brother Ethan, who has said he is losing interest in cinema), is something of a family outing; McDormand said at a press conference to introduce the world premiere of the movie at the New York Film Festival that she has been aching to play Lady Macbeth since she first fell in love with the sleepwalking scene at age 14. For 15 years, she said, she pestered her husband Joel Coen to direct her in a stage production, but he replied that he would have no idea how to direct theater. She did the role on stage in Berkeley five years ago but, alas, is not a good match for the part. Her interpretation is the standard one — cold, cruel, calculating — but as a performer her gift is for being plucky, or maybe feisty. She lacks either the gravitas or the sense of being in touch with bottomless evil.
Worse news: Washington is terribly miscast. He first played Othello at Juilliard when he was 20, and he is perhaps more devoted to the stage than any American movie star of his stature. But he loves Shakespeare more than Shakespeare loves him. Either unwilling or unable to create different voices for different parts, he sticks with his American accent (as does McDormand). With his highly contemporary manner of speaking, he sounds more like a quizzical big-city police detective than a medieval Scottish soldier. He appears to have no particular conceptual strategy for approaching the part, switching gears from one scene to the next without any connecting theme, and sometimes he rushes his words. Never for a single moment will you forget that you’re watching Denzel Washington rather than the Shakespearean hero. Plus, at 66, he is far too old for the part, and he looks distinctly fleshy for a soldier. What 66-year-old is out chopping off limbs in the field, much less stabbing his way to the top? What wife waits till she’s 64, as McDormand is, to turn ruthless? When Macbeth slays King Duncan, the act is meant to have the horrific whiff of parricide, yet the old king is played by Brendan Gleeson, who is a few months younger than Washington. To recap how this all came together: Lady McDormand just had to play the role, which meant she had to find a Macbeth in her age range, and Washington is a big enough movie star that he attracts financing, so . . . welcome to a Hollywood casting folly.
But don’t let the Oscar winners distract you: the film’s true stars are Coen, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and production designer Stefan Dechant. The look these three have created is magnificently bleak and sumptuously arid, a banquet of vapor. Delbonnel’s exquisitely composed, often beautifully symmetrical black-and-white images (shot at the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank) revel in the shadowy starkness of German expressionism from the silent-film era (Coen cites Carl Theodor Dreyer and F. W. Murnau as influences) and the awe-inspiring rigors of Ingmar Bergman.
Yet no Bergman film delivers nearly as many knockout visuals as this one. Macbeth’s betrayals are part and parcel of a desolate void — endless white beaches, lonely campsites, and empty castles whose bare walls and roofs are open to the heavens and to the bitter winds. A climactic fight takes place on what looks like a Brutalist cement corridor hanging over an abyss; characters disappear into choking fog or meet at table over empty goblets.
Terrorized by flocks of ravens, splattered by the blood of his king, menaced by the leaves of Birnam Wood as it marches to Dunsinane, Macbeth is more clearly defined by what’s going on around him than by Washington’s acting. Carter Burwell’s doomy score and the sound engineering add greatly to the foreboding, notably when the drip of Duncan’s blood on the floor blends with both the heavy sound of a boot striking a hard floor and with a percussive effect that sounds like God’s own gavel bringing down judgment. Coen’s realization of the Weird Sisters — played with otherworldly intensity by Kathryn Hunter — is magnificent. The cauldron scene, played with the witches perched like birds on beams far over Macbeth’s head, is perhaps the highlight of the film, turning the floor beneath the usurper’s feet into a flood of horror.
That is full commitment, and we should be grateful that Oscar lust keeps pushing tech firms such as Apple to back such commercially dicey projects. To say the least, this isn’t the usual Hollywood production, nor does Coen (who produced it with McDormand) try to wring some vacuous sociopolitical commentary out of the material. It’s just straight-up glory-of-cinema filmmaking, and at 66, Coen continues to be one of his field’s creative leaders.