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Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021)

Things happen fast in The Tragedy of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays: compact and brutal, yet spellbinding in its poetry. Joel Coen’s new film, his debut effort without his brother, catches the hurtling pace, stark lyricism, and numbing bleakness of its source material. Hewing close to the text, the film distills some of the play’s recurring preoccupations: time and fate; night, sleep, and death; and the double meaning of blood. It means bloodshed (as in “blood will have blood”), and also kinship, lineage, succession (a man’s father is “the fountain of your blood”). At the dark heart of the play is an unspeakable connection between death and birth, murder and love, expressed most shockingly in Lady Macbeth’s description of her willingness to tear a nursing infant from her breast and dash its brains out. You might say that the main characters in Macbeth are “blood simple,” deranged by the senseless violence they have suffered or meted out.

The first words in the film are spoken in darkness, and the first figures materialize out of a blank mist: birds circling, men returning from battle. The black-and-white cinematography has a calligraphic elegance: bare branches form a shivering web on the walls of a tent; small, lonely figures are framed in long corridors patterned with the shade of arches. The stylized sets—colonnades, vaulted ceilings, skyscraping towers—are smooth and bare, punctuated only by light and shadows. Coen’s choice to shoot entirely on soundstages recalls Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948), which made the best of Republic Pictures’ shoestring resources to convert existing sets into a glowering, rough-hewn, dank, and cave-like dreamscape. Compared with Welles’s expressionistic gloom, or the mud-and-gore realism of Roman Polanski’s 1971 location-shot adaptation, Coen’s version might seem a little too pristine and exquisitely composed. The “desolate shade” where the bereaved and exiled Malcolm and Macduff seek refuge becomes a pretty, tapestry-like forest. There is no weight or texture to the digital leaves and birds, and the excessive sharpness of the picture works slightly against the graphic boldness of the compositions. The blacks aren’t black enough.

But these are small quibbles, since The Tragedy of Macbeth is still full of arresting images that crystallize the play’s omens and apparitions. First and best, there is the sublimely weird and unsettling performance by Kathryn Hunter as the Three Witches. Digital magic is occasionally employed to multiply her into a triad, but her own physicality is a much more impressive special effect: the spidery contortions of her body; the cold, avian alertness of her dark eyes; the way her husky whisper bubbles in her throat. At times, with her tight black hood and cloak, Hunter looks a lot like Death in The Seventh Seal (1957)—both films, incidentally, start with the camera looking up at birds in flight. Erudite references and meticulous craft have always been part of Coen’s signature in the films made with his brother Ethan, and the textual fidelity of this adaptation occasionally shades into a familiar deadpan provocation, a literal-mindedness that challenges modern sensibilities. For all the lines that have been cut, the ingredients of the witches’ cauldron still include “liver of blaspheming Jew … nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips.” The cauldron itself becomes a room flooded with water—which, along with the recurring motif of dripping water or blood, summons Tarkovsky. The sound of the drips is amplified to an ominous thudding or banging, a slow drumbeat like the one that heralds Macbeth’s coming.

Who is Macbeth? The first time we meet him is when he encounters the Three Witches, who tempt him with the prophecy that he will be king. The speed with which he goes from loyal vassal to betrayer, willing to murder a sleeping guest—the king, no less—in his own house, presents a challenge for any actor. Denzel Washington starts out in a quiet register—wary, weary, and reluctant—and from there builds a steady arc toward raving fury, growing looser and more relaxed as he slides into madness, and having great fun with lines like, “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!” Macbeth’s ambition, commonly assumed to be the central theme of the play, must be taken as a given, since the text provides no insight on that score. But Washington ably elucidates the unstoppable process of moral collapse that follows the first crime, as hesitance and guilt give way to paranoia and nihilism. W.H. Auden, in his Lectures on Shakespeare, called Macbeth an inverted tragedy: rather than a good man brought down by a tragic flaw, Macbeth and his wife are both basically bad people who suffer because they are not entirely bad, and have just enough goodness to feel remorse.

Lady Macbeth’s arc reverses her husband’s: she goads him into the first murder by mocking his unmanly weakness, but dwindles suddenly into a troubled sleepwalker as Macbeth ramps up his reign of terror. While the character is often cast as a kind of femme fatale, seductive and serpentine, McDormand plays up Lady Macbeth’s no-nonsense toughness—often to amusing effect—and her “unsexed” androgyny. The clarity and plainness of her delivery, less declamatory and easier to follow than anyone else’s in the cast, retains a humanity in the character in spite of her appalling callousness. The scenes between Washington and McDormand have real warmth and the easy intimacy of a long-married couple, which accentuates just how alone both Macbeth and his wife are by the film’s end.

Kenneth Tynan, who co-wrote the screenplay for Polanski’s Macbeth, explained the choice to cast young actors in the lead roles by saying that characters over 60 were too old to be ambitious—a claim amply disproven by some of the geriatric politicians currently strutting and fretting upon the stage. Casting older actors underlines one of the key points of the play—the Macbeths’ childlessness, which Sigmund Freud thought was the whole subject of the work. Children literally haunt the play, with apparitions including a “bloody child” who tells Macbeth that no man “of woman born” can kill him, and the worst atrocities seem motivated by his paranoid rage over his lack of heirs. Coen rightly emphasizes this motif: the moving scene with Lady Macduff (the wonderful Moses Ingram) and her son, just before they are slaughtered, gives a voice to maternal anger at male violence and abandonment; and the film devotes more attention than the play does to the fate of Fleance, the young son of Banquo. Both these scenes also involve the ambiguous, Zelig-like Ross (Alex Hassell), whom Coen transforms from a character of convenience into something of a moral center, adding two scenes with no basis in the play that turn this witness and message-carrier into a secret political strategist.

Critics throughout history have debated Lady Macbeth’s assertion that she has nursed an infant—a child that died? Or one from a previous marriage? The play has no time for backstories and only a little for psychological realism. Do the characters, acting out prophecies, even have free will? Productions of Macbeth often emphasize the primitive, archaic setting, like Welles’s druidical Scotland, or adopt an extremely stylized mode of performance, like Akira Kurosawa’s Noh-inspired Throne of Blood (1957). Coen’s film resists the temptation to add the kind of traumatic backstory that is de rigueur in 21st-century drama but also avoids the distancing effects of many versions. In his take, the world of Macbeth feels alien, but also eerily familiar: a world in turmoil, where nature is disordered as a result of man’s unnatural deeds. It is all too easy to hear the resonance of Ross’s cry: “Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself!” With a murder of crows blackening the screen in its final moments, the film undercuts the play’s triumphal ending, and underscores its chilling vision of a world where, as Lady Macduff says, “All is the fear, and nothing is the love.”

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. She has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere, and wrote the Phantom Light column for Film Comment.