Friday, December 31, 2021

The Tragedy of Macbeth – a pacy though somewhat utilitarian retelling of the Bard’s Scottish Play (QFT until 6 January)

I hadn’t realised that Frances McDormand was married to Joel Coen. Such celeb trivia usually doesn’t matter. But how has it taken Coen so long to cast McDormand as Lady Macbeth? Does he not gaze at her over breakfast and see the face of someone who engineer treason? He should be checking for horses’ heads in his bed before settling to down to sleep. In this latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, McDormand and Coen coproduce The Tragedy of Macbeth. (Ethan Coen isn’t involved.)

The film hurtles through the plot like a teenage English student turning over pages to reach the good bits, arriving at the death of Duncan in record time. From there, things slow a little, until the wind gets behind the sails of Malcolm’s branch-camouflaged army and Macbeth’s days are finally numbered.

Denzel Washington flits effortlessly between confident and troubled monarch, forever talking to himself as he wanders through the near empty castle. McDormand deliberately underplays the emotion and femininity that is often laboured as Lady Macbeth. In fact, nearly every aspect (other than Macbeth’s visions) that could be heightened or stressed is calmed down: the set, the emoting, the flowery speechifying, the battles, the bloody deaths. This less-frenzied environment makes the dialogue no less potent, and allows the odd moment of bawdy Shakespearian humour to be snuck in.

It feels like every scene uses its own distinct stage, with the minimal cast spaced out as if social distancing was a thing in the 11th century court. The shape-shifting witches, all played by Kathryn Hunter, fly in and out of Macbeth’s increasingly contorted conscious. Coen plays with reflections in water (neatly adapting the usual cauldron), adding to this beautiful other-worldly creation that could hardly be more different from Justin Kurzel’s fabulous 2015 Macbeth (starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and the unforgettable red mist).

Shot in black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, the squeezed aspect ratio (4:3, Academy 1.375:1 or 1.19:1 depending on which website you believe) gives The Tragedy of Macbeth an old-fashioned feel. The feel of the stage is accentuated by the crisp visuals, and expressionist lighting that pretends it’s always golden hour during the day, and there’s an ever present full moon at night. Geometric shapes and shadows decorate the modernist castle rooms and courtyard with pale plastered walls and zero clutter. There is only occasional torrential rain to disrupt a building with few ceilings. This is unlike any Scotland I’ve visited!

At times the dialogue becomes too humdrum and the staging is too utilitarian, reminiscent of a cheap 1970’s science fiction set without the flashing lights. Yet this movie is still a deserving addition to the already crowded market of Macbeth films and theatre productions with its distinctive style, a nifty 105-minute runtime, and some very memorable moments.

Now that McDormand and Coen have got the Scottish Play out of the way, maybe they could turn their hand to shortening and simplifying A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

The Tragedy of Macbeth is being screened daily in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 6 January. It’ll pop up on Apple TV+ on 14 January 2022. 

Update – The headline of the New York Times online review sums it up well: “The Thane, Insane, Slays Mainly in Dunsinane”!

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