Well Versed
By Violet Lucca

NYFF 2021:
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Dir. Joel Coen, U.S., A24/Apple+

Expressing any degree of weariness with Sir Francis Bacon’s—or, if you like, William Shakespeare’s—collected Tudor propaganda feels like an icky, insipid contrarian pose. The wordplay is fun (when you can keep up with it), and the outlines of plot and character will no doubt be familiar from high school (or plenty else in Western culture), so there are ways into the text. Yet unless you’re a deep scholar of the Bard, the burnout is real—the minutiae hidden within the frequent engagements, homages, and rehashes of this corpus doesn’t do much without that knowledge. While I’m not foolish enough to think everything ought to be for me—or for my comrades who also didn’t read A Midsummers Nights Dream—the film adaptations of these plays are always, in my mind, reduced to their directors’ boldest visual choices: the use of shadows in Olivier’s Richard III; the smoke and howling wind in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood; and Branagh pressing his body all over a very young Kate Winslet in 70mm (even though the original text only obliquely implies thatHamlet and Ophelia fooled around).

Luckily for stupid me, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is full of lovely, obvious, expressionistic style choices, which not only registered on my limited Shakespeare palate but felt invigorating after 18 months of watching mediocrely lensed historical dramas on my TV. The possibility that Coen would get a crack at suffusing Shakespeare with Dreyer-esque flourishes not simply because of his long career, the star power of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and use of well-established intellectual property, but also because of the success of Game of Thrones and the subsequent cavalcade of shows about Vikings is, needless to say, amusing. But I still find myself asking: why Macbeth now? In the ever expanding yet always shrinking landscape of streaming feature films, such questions about what gets made and what doesn’t loom larger than ever. Audiences certainly don’t need to be coaxed into this new home theatrical paradigm—especially when the company that makes your phone, watch, computer, and TV produced the film—so the safeness of this bet is glaring. Rather than heralding the return of art for art’s sake, the choice augurs a time of more inoffensive, algorithm-approved work that is good enough that you don’t notice that it’s so palatable. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but being suspicious of the things you like is more useful than knowing which folio Hecate first appeared in.I will also note that compared with the number of legitimately great films at this year’s New York Film Festival (The Souvenir Part II, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, El Gran movimiento, to name a few) this tragedy belongs to a lower tier.

This Macbeth’s conspicuous coolness and avoidance of politics (at least those from the past 500 years or so) also evince its frictionless nature. I’d cross the street to steer clear of someone desperate for a Trumpy Macbeth, yet Coen’s evasion of the contemporary and its attendant pressure points feels like the comet marking the #Resistance’s abrupt disengagement in the Biden era. This is a straightforward, in-period adaptation, which means one must abandon such concerns while viewing (but also keep them in mind—the default pose for times when we know what the problems are and how to solve them but are rendered powerless by larger forces.) Its redoubtable technical finery makes up for this lack. Expertly filmed—in a manner that evinces the director and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s deep understanding of how to compose for black and white, and not simply remove color in post—the film offers gradations of light and dark that befit the protagonists’ abrupt slide into immorality and lunacy. The contrast also allows for the distortion of space: the rail-thin Ross (Alex Hassell), clad in all black, suddenly emerges from what seems to be a depthless cloud of fog, walking across a battlefield of indeterminate carnage; at another point, the sun transforms into a spotlight so that Banquo (Bertie Carvel) can deliver a soliloquy about his suspicions shortly before he has that unfortunate stabbing accident. Just as Ross’s ability to pop out of literally nowhere into the story approximates his strange (weird, even) interjections into the text, so too does the spotlight fixed on Banquo conjure a high-noir police interrogation and its attendant anxieties.

The contraction, expansion, and occultation of space are also enacted through the interplay of cinematography, VFX, and set design, which change to suit the psychology of the film’s characters as well as its audience’s need for visual variation. (More directly: such an approach is a way of avoiding any accusations of filmed theater, even though moneyed, ambitious theater companies construct inventive mise-en-scène, too.) After Macbeth (the incredible Denzel Washington) learns he will only be a thane and not King Duncan’s successor, he lies in a tent where shadows play at the semi-opaque walls (like a less obnoxious version of the shadow cutouts that dance around Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stokers Dracula), seethes, sends his good lady wife a letter about this oversight, and seethes some more. When Lady M (Frances McDormand, of course) receives his letter and is equally incensed, she stands inside of a room in their castle that has long, fluttering curtains with equally active shadows upon them. That they are in slightly different versions of the same space suggests a type of psychic connection, a pre-murder scheme understanding of what must be done. Macbeth’s cubelike castle—which, without ceilings or reflective surfaces, reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” a silly (twist: they’re actually toys in a barrel) yet terrifying little fusion of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and Sartre’s No Exit—is the perfect reflection of paranoia. The changing shape of his castle’s gothic church windows, which ominously allow in birds, ghosts, and the leaves of moving forests, drives home the guilt visually.

It’s these shape-shifting sets, not the actors, which feel most alive. As the three Weird Sisters, Kathryn Hunter, who contorts herself into all sorts of things (birds, an old man, multiple versions of herself), doesn’t really surprise with her line readings, which are spoken in strangled tones. Neither does McDormand, who brings little depth or novelty to her interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Though we have been trained to see McDormand as “fierce”—and she certainly is in this, as she’s an accessory to at least one murder—her soliloquy in a nightie about that damned spot is absolutely standard fare. (It’s too bad there wasn’t, say, more comedy from either Shakespeare or Coen running throughout this picture.) Washington, with grey and white in his hair, speaking with an alternately muted fury and weariness, is frequently excellent. Though he almost hurriedly recites “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”—a soliloquy so good that even this ex-mall goth remembers it—the words carry a resignation that’s touching and grounded in dotage. According to Coen, the advanced age of the actors ismeant to imbue the Macbeths’ actions with a tempus fugit desperation, a “new spin,” except that doesn’t really mean much—after all, the characters were always desperate. Putting aside the director’s stated intention, the choice can perhaps be better understood as a critique of the gerontocracy: while people live longer and refuse to retire, us Malcolms and Macduffs are exiled in England without a Birnam Wood option. It’s also a reading backed up by the film’s surety of success—the talent, the source material, the exquisite visual approach.

There is no single yardstick by which art, even in Hollywood, should be judged. Yet we have been drowned in prestige (the label, not actual quality) for 20 years, and subjected to the financial needs of an industry that can’t quite admit that it’s in crisis. The information collected about us during that same time period dictates what pop songs sound like and what movies contain. So really, I’m not paranoid—it’s the media execs who are. And like an aging Macbeth, they want to stay in power, and might occasionally put out a little art just to do so.