Historian and politician John Dalberg Acton is quoted saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Is it possible he was reading William Shakespeare’s 1606 play Macbeth when he thought of this? Macbeth has always been a story about power and corruption of the spirit and how greed could turn two seemingly good people into murderers. Was it dormant within them? Or was it an opportunity that sent Lord and Lady Macbeth into a power-obsessed frenzy? Director Joel Coen explores the consequences of war and loss through a fantastical, almost surrealist-like lens in The Tragedy of Macbeth, which world premieres tonight to open the New York Film Festival. He executes Shakespeare’s work in a way that takes inspiration from other adaptations of the play while creating a version that is all his own.
Crows hover under the surface of the sun while a death-knell rings. The weird sisters (played brilliantly by Kathryn Hunter) begin their monologue foreshadowing what’s to come. Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) approach the witch and receive the prophecy: Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor before becoming King of Scotland, and Banquo will give birth to kings, but will never be one. He is unsure whether to believe it until he is granted the new title by King Duncan (Brendon Gleeson).
The soon-to-be-king writes a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), and with all the excitement of a little kid in Chuck E. Cheese, the Lady is ready to make prophecy reality and can’t wait for her husband to get home so they can plot. Macbeth is vulnerable after returning from war; convincing him to kill the king and take the crown is an easy task. Sure, he has some reservations, but this woman is so manipulative and persuasive, he can’t say no. He kills Duncan, is given the crown — and all hell breaks loose.
Lord and Lady Macbeth are two severely mentally ill individuals suffering from more than thoughtless ambition. Macbeth is a general who served in back-to-back wars without a break and possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Lady Macbeth is a childless wife who recently just lost another child and is rendered infertile. With the chance to make themselves royalty to distract themselves from the crappy lot in life, why not seize the moment? Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out too well for the duo. As their roles reverse, the once remorseful Macbeth goes on a wild killing spree, while Lady Macbeth begins to feel copious amounts of guilt. As their time as king and queen dwindle, murder and suicide seem the only way out of the mess they made.
Coen’s work in The Tragedy of Macbeth is otherwordly. The style is a complete departure from the years of work he’s done with his brother Ethan. Every aspect of the production works in unison by combining stage and screen sensibilities to execute his masterful vision of the Scottish play. When two people are in a scene, they stand at 45-degree angles, which adds to the dramatic effect. The intoxicating lighting (which often resembles moonlight), reflected through Stefan Dechant’s elaborate production design, makes the story feel larger than life. These aspects are further enhanced by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s tight and crisp framing of settings, scenes and actors.
However, the production wouldn’t be as strong if it weren’t for its two mains stars. Washington is no stranger to Shakespeare. He played Prince Aragon in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. He also starred in the 2005 production of Julius Caesar. He brings that same vigor, and brings Macbeth to life. Instead of opting for a rough-and-tumble performance that actors in this role typically embrace, Macbeth is quiet, systematic and intentional about his actions. The formidable Lady Macbeth anchors Washington’s Macbeth; McDormand runs through the role with reckless abandon and commands the screen. Her character is so frightening, many of her scenes include subtle horror elements that add bravado to the character’s onscreen persona. These two people are just damn good in this.
Even when he is inches away from death, Macbeth can’t help but grab hold of the crown. It’s a visual moment to signify why Macbeth is dead in the first place. It’s a similar ending to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (another adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth shot in black and white). Again, inspirations abound, Coen is doing fantastic work here. His version of this story is one of the few that zeroes in on the fantasy and brings that to the foreground. Now that he isn’t directing with his brother Ethan, maybe he will lend his expertise to different film genres as The Tragedy of Macbeth proves he certainly has the imagination and innovation to forge a new path.
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