NYFF 2021 review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen)

“Joel Coen contributes a well-performed but stagy and entirely disposable addition to the pantheon of Macbeth and other Shakespeare screen adaptations.”

If the intention behind the latest screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Joel Coen was to add to the considerable tallies of Oscar nominations of his leading stars Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington, consider it ‘mission accomplished’. Based simply on stature and the exquisite competence of their undeniable craft, McDormand and Washington are of course well on their way to awards success. But sadly, the overall picture constitutes a decidedly inessential entry into the Shakespeare-on-screen genre, hobbled as it is by a stage-bound feel throughout its lean one hour 45 minute duration.

In a career marked by several classics, awards galore, and consistent critical acclaim, this film represents Joel Coen’s first outing without his brother in what is by some measure one of the most successful co-director partnerships in film history. Sadly, on the evidence of this film, we might speculate whether Ethan was the genius behind their continued success because this film, while respectable, is never able to clear the bar of mediocrity. It in fact falls much below that bar for most of its runtime, in a version that feels as much like a filmed play as possible without actually being one.

The film is a heartbeat away from the point-and-shoot variety, keen as it is to capture acting performances over anything else. The mise en scene, following a bare, stripped down Spartan form, is banal to the point of distraction, the frames dull tableaus of school-play level production design, awash in the shadows and lights of Bruno Delbonnel’s flat cinematography. The compositions lack depth, action is limited to the foreground with nothing interesting going on in the background for the majority of the film. What little production design there is seems obscured by mist for most of the movie. The academy ratio and monochrome gradation notwithstanding, the film feels disappointingly televisual for what is one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic and visual plays.

The entire production feels low budget and threadbare. Orson Welles’ curtailed production values were a consequence of severely cut funding. Here, one would imagine the deep pockets of Apple posed no such constraint and the cheap look is a bizarre artistic choice. The pandemic is no excuse either because while the movie finished production during our collective ordeal, it was conceived, designed and started filming before any lockdown happened. What we are left with is a baffling Zack Snyder by way of German Expressionism feel – where it is entirely obvious the movie was shot in small rooms with everything else painted in through CGI or other means. Except even Snyder is able to do more with a “filmed in a room” aesthetic.

The low budget feel seems to extend to the action sequences. When the finale calls for the storming of Macbeth’s castle and a battle of armies, we are left with a few dozen soldiers waving what appears to be plastic Walmart-bought tree boughs to simulate the famous “the Birnam Wood moving and coming to Dunsinane” sequence. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) this decidedly is not.

This almost willfully uncinematic version cuts corners in other places too even when it would have been easy to fill in the gaps. Shakespeare’s play was designed for the Elizabethan stage in the late 16th and early 17th century. Stage scenery was sparse and space was small, and the ability to stage massive set pieces was extremely limited. Consequently, very important events would occur off stage and then be mentioned by actors on stage. An example would be the suicide of the second most important character in the play – Lady Macbeth. Frances McDormand has to suffer the indignity of dying off screen because Coen couldn’t be bothered to film a death scene for her. There is no rhythm or trajectory to the film. Lady Macbeth proceeds from sane to insane in a single scene and not even a performer of McDormand’s calibre can properly communicate a transformation so sudden.

The movie is so scrupulously faithful to the text of Shakespeare’s play that little seems to have been done in way of adaptation. It carries essentially the same scene structure and the dialog is entirely faithful, barring a few exceptions. Innovations extend to the greatly expanded and reconfigured role of Ross (Alex Hassell) and having a single actor (Kathryn Hunter) play all the witches.

The aforementioned two actors might be best in show. Hassell adds a necessary dose of malice and deviousness to his interpretation, perhaps acting as the string-puller behind all the major events. Dressed in clothes that resemble the habit of a monk crossed with the villainous black gowns of Maleficent and other screen vamps, he looks appropriately vulture-like in attire and visage and his eyes convey mischief that is missing in all other parts of this version. Hunter is similarly superb, especially with regard to her voice which sounds like an unhinged version of late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg crossed with her parody by Saturday Night Live performer Kate McKinnon.

The slapdash nature of the production is also reflected in the mélange of clashing accents and acting styles of performers that hail from the stage and the silver screen, as well as several parts of the United Kingdom and the United States. Tech credits are unremarkable. Carter Burwell’s sparse score adds precious little as the soundtrack seems dominated by exasperating loud knocking sounds throughout.

Also for what is considered to be amongst Shakespeare’s most violent plays, this film is consistently tame despite the R rating, entirely outdone by the 50-year-old Roman Polanski version (1971). A PG13 rating would not be out of place. Far from the desire to see gratuitous violence on screen, one would argue that the bloody aspects of this grim tale demand proper visualization to communicate its sense of horror and bolster its cumulative impact.

Award prospects for the performers will be strong but we shall see if award-giving bodies embrace the film as a whole. Box office prospects would appear to be dim because despite the intelligible dialog (for a Shakespeare production), the film is being presented in black and white and the academy ratio, which might be alienating for general audiences. The shortened theatrical window of a mere few weeks before it debuts on Apple TV streaming also portends against a robust theatrical run. School children and student audiences might be an appropriate target audience for this film as the reduced violence and shorter length might increase accessibility for that segment.

Joel Coen contributes a well-performed but stagy and entirely disposable addition to the pantheon of Macbeth and other Shakespeare screen adaptations. Shakespeare devotees would be better served watching reruns of the versions presented by Orson Welles, Roman Polanski or Akira Kurosawa.