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Macbeth / The Tragedy of Macbeth

Director: Joel Coen (USA). Year of Release: 2022

The problem with filming something like Macbeth is that after so many theatre performances, so many films, and whoever knows what else, it must be difficult to come up with anything original to say. In this light, here’s a brief plot summary for those who haven’t been keeping up.

Scottish lords Macbeth and Banquo are visited by an apparition telling Macbeth that he is Thane of Glamis (he already knew that), and he’ll become Thane of Cawdor and king. Banquo is told that there’s not much in it for him personally, but that his descendants will be kings. The pair return to court where King Duncan tells them that the old Thane of Cawdor has been fighting with the Norwegians against Scotland, and will be executed. Macbeth will inherit his title.

Eager to hurry up the final prediction, and under persuasion from his ambitious wife, Macbeth kills Duncan, forcing Duncan’s sons to flee. The newly-crowned Macbeth then employs some cutthroats to get rid of Banquo and his only son. They kill Banquo, but the son flees. Macbeth and his wife are both attacked by remorse. He sees visions of a dagger and Banquo’s ghost, while she dies, presumably of suicide.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s son Malcolm goes Down South with rogue lord Macduff to raise an English army. Macbeth revisits the apparition which tells him to fear Macduff but also that he’s safe till Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Even then, he can’t be killed by anyone of woman born. This is all leading up to the two worst plot twists in the history of World Literature as smartarse Macduff explains that because he was a Caesarian birth he was technically Not of Woman Born.

Macduff kills Macbeth, Malcolm becomes king. The End.

As said, Macbeth has been filmed many times, but none of the previous versions looks remotely like this. Director Joel Coen (working for the first time without brother Ethan) follows a lot of recent directors in filming in black and white in 4:3 aspect ratio. Many films which do this just look a little too pleased with themselves, and the monochrome and narrow screen add nothing to the film. Here they emphasize the eeriness of a film, much of which takes place in lurking shadows.

It also gives the film the grandeur of an old classic – a film noir maybe – and the sense that an Important Story is being told. Leading actor Denzel Washington looks grizzled and ageing. Before the film, if you’d asked me to think of Denzel, I’d have the youthful hopefulness of films like Mississippi Masala in mind. Here, he has the trouble of the world on his shoulders, and looks utterly weary.

Casting Washington and co-producer Frances Macdormand – both in their sixties – as the Macbeths slightly changes our vision of the play. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are usually played by younger actors who embody ambition. Here it’s like they are trying to preserve a legacy before it gets too late (one might ask why Macbeth is so worried that Banquo’s descendants will be king if he and his wife are old and childless, but we’ll let that one pass).

The film also deals gracefully with the Third Murderer – a role that often seems to have been tacked on afterwards without much thought. The two murderers sent to kill Banquo are joined by a third man who doesn’t introduce himself and there seems little point him being there. In some productions he is shown to be Macbeth in disguise, making sure the deed gets done. This film finds a more duplicitous but no less elegant solution.

This production works so well for me because it understands the difference between a play and a film. Films aspire much more towards realism and some stage conventions just look odd. So, here, some soliloquies are removed, or – as in the case of the Porter’s speech – shortened and given an audience. As far as I can remember, it’s only towards the end, when Lady Macbeth starts to lose her mind and Macbeth shouts into the abyss that anyone is filmed actually talking to themselves.

Above all, the film looks magnificent. There is prolific use of sinister black birds – I’m not sure if they’re crows or ravens – which portend that something is rotten in the state of Scotland and that we can expect strange things to happen. The architecture is intimidating and looks not quite like somewhere that anyone would actually live, but I guess that’s what castles are supposed to look like. We are awed in their presence.

I must admit that I’ve had the feeling in recent years that the Coen Brothers have been busking it a bit. They’ve always been good for producing a film with the odd memorable scene, but I can’t remember the last time they released something which comprised a satisfying whole. Macbeth, on the other hand, is superb from beginning to end. First great film I’ve seen this year, and hopefully not the last.

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