Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth premiered at the New York Film Festival with little fanfare—a morning screening, a press conference with COVID-induced microphone restrictions, a packed theater of weary-eyed critics. This mood characterizes the film itself, an aesthetically gorgeous update on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays that sticks to the source material like the conjoined twin of your battered-up copy from ninth grade English class. Macbeth is a perfect example of the craft of film, one that will be shown both to high schoolers seeking to access the text and to film students desperate to imitate its nuances of light. But just as the film is drained of color to more artfully situate the shots onscreen, so too are moments drained of energy, verve, or conviction. Despite great performances from a stoic and steady Denzel Washington and a clear-eyed Frances McDormand fulfilling the role she has coveted since she was fourteen, Macbeth is at times as one-dimensional as the scrims that fill its frames.
McDormand told the audience that she had tried to persuade Coen to direct Macbeth onstage for about fifteen years before the two pursued the film version. (Washington then agreed to star without a moment’s hesitation.) In theatre, a director cannot stop the wandering eye of the audience, and must account for every possible prop, actor, or stagehand seen from the wings. Not so in film, Coen said, where his control over what is and isn’t in a frame grants him the auteurship that men like Shakespeare could only have dreamed of. His film does not deviate from Shakespeare’s language, only trimming some moments from the five-act play, and his staging is indulgently theatrical, with large open spaces beckoning actors into their corners. (If curtains could give a come-hither look, they would have done so to Washington and McDormand) Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s lighting echoes German expressionist influences like Murnau’s Nosferatu, and his blending and fading of shots keep the film moving at a reliable pace, even if this leaves us little breathing room to digest speeches. Just in case you didn’t know, Joel Coen is a talented, well-studied, astute filmmaker. Most audience members already know this, and don’t need it to be proved to them by a puppy eager to show off its newest trick. Macbeth is, at face value, a lovely film, a perfect example of exactly what it means for film to be crafted as artwork—but so what?
There is nothing really accomplished by Coen’s presentation of Macbeth: He, like the title characters, came, he saw, he conquered. Watching the film was like staring at a painting that is at once beautiful but also broadcasting a lack of heart or soul. Shouldn’t such artistic films speak to the resiliency or torment of the human spirit? Shouldn’t performances as studied and grand revel as much in the silence of thought and reflection as they rush forward against the current of the many great names who have played these same roles? The performance that best captured the joy and despair of the source material was Kathryn Hunter’s, as she portrays all three weird sisters in one avian, contorting body. Her movement also echoed the German expressionism of the Witch Dance (Hexentanz) of Mary Wigman. Her brazen theatricality would have done well to be distributed to the whole company of actors.
Though the supporting cast doesn’t share the delightful weirdness of Hunter, they are strong and sturdy, moving in sync with one another like a true company of stage actors. Their voices are a quiet symphony whose different accents are altered subtly enough that they do not distract from the cohesion of the whole. Alex Hassell’s Ross is a guiding light who steers the film into the harbor, and who may be considered a leading actor alongside Washington in the awards race. (And if you’re trying to remember who Ross is from the last time you read the play, don’t worry—the decision to center the nobleman’s actions was deliberate on Coen’s part to both distinguish the adaptation from other films and to echo theatrical productions that did the same.) Harry Melling’s enthusiastic Malcolm is both endearing and unnerving as he grows from an eager child to a “woefully unprepared” soldier, as he described the transformation. Corey Hawkins’ Macduff offered a refreshing change of pace from many of his scene partners as he chose to soak in the stillness of certain moments before plowing ahead. His reaction to learning of the murder of his wife and children was the most poignant moment of the film in a performance that won’t soon be forgotten.
While Macbeth does not feel quite like other entrees in the Coen oeuvre, this difference is not reason to dismiss it. On the contrary, it was thrilling to see what Joel Coen produced without his brother. The film is not lacking because it doesn’t feel like a typical Coen Brothers movie—it’s lacking because it feels like a senior theatre thesis. Just because you can create art does not always mean you should; just because you are a stalwart of the craft of film does not mean you are automatically making a definitive statement through craft alone. It’s undeniable that Macbeth is a beautiful film, but it is also a shout in the void of interpretation of both Shakespeare’s work and the many filmed versions of the past century. It is, quite literally, a walking shadow, signifying nothing.
This review is from the New York Film Festival. A24 and Apple will release The Tragedy of Macbeth in select theaters on December 25 then on Apple TV+ January 14.