Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2021. A24, IAC Films. Screenplay by Joel Coen, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. Produced by Joel Coen, Robert Graf, Frances McDormand. Music by Carter Burwell. Production Design by Stefan Dechant. Costume Design by Mary Zophres. Film Editing by Joel Coen, Lucian Johnston.
The choice of a Shakespeare adaptation for Joel Coen, famously devoted to the quirks of much more modern characters (even in his period pieces, which rarely go further back than the twentieth century), seems at first an odd, uncharacteristic one, about as strange as the fact that the credits for the first time only bear the name of one Coen brother (Ethan has announced that he is no longer interested in filmmaking). Having always focused his projects on foolishly ambitious characters who believe in their destiny against all rational evidence to the contrary, Macbeth (played here with silver-tongued savvy by Denzel Washington) is actually a perfect fit for Coen, a man who believes his right to the throne is so naturally bona fide that only a forest on the move or a man somehow not born of a woman could unseat him from it.
Following Macbeth’s learning from three witches (all played with her usual curious grotesquerie by celebrated stage luminary Kathryn Hunter) that he is destined to become king, he is rushed by his even more ambitious wife (Frances McDormand) to fulfill the prophecy by murdering all in his path to the throne. His mind only grows more agitated with each fresh kill, but with further pronouncements from the witches that he misinterprets as guarantees of his lengthy reign, his behaviour becomes more tyrannical, while Lady Macbeth suffers mentally for the couple’s sins.
Coen takes part in the recent resurgence in popularity of films shot in black and white and in Academy standard ratio (The Lighthouse, Passing are others) to create a highly stylized rendering of Shakespeare’s tragedy, juicily brimming over with highly precise shot compositions whose shadows could cut glass, images that sometimes remind one of classic studio photography, other times of high-art graphic novels, and set design that takes one back to the forced theatricality of Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet. What Coen does with particular skill is combine this sense of the theatrical with a feeling for the highly cinematic, it’s rare that the balance is struck so well, though the film’s great aesthetic pleasures often come at the expense of its dramatic urgency; it’s hard to be carried away by grief for a woman gone mad with guilt or a boy tossed off a balcony to his death when you’re admiring how incredibly gorgeous the image is.
Perhaps bringing a tear to our eyes wasn’t on Coen’s mind in taking on this project anyway, it cannot be said that his oeuvre is awash in sentimental tearjerkers, which is why his portrayal of his ambitious lead character uses the character’s dialogue to create a vision of him as desperate and neurotic, the medieval equivalent to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. Cutting the play down to a remarkable 105-minute running time, Coen reverses the usual habit of editing out the Bard’s numerous soliloquies and makes them the centrepiece of the story, the method by which the protagonist quells his mind of his wrongdoings, mainly to deal with both his marital conflict and his increasingly fragile certainty of his royal destiny.
This is not the definitive cinematic rendering of one of the author’s darkest tales, that probably remains with Kurosawa if we are to allow for outside-the-box adaptations (and we’ll give it to Polanski if we are not), but the inventive visual interpretations of the most memorable key moments of the play make it certainly among the most exciting and original.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Denzel Washington); Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction
Critics Choice Award Nominations: Best Actor (Denzel Washington); Best Cinematography
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Actor-Drama (Denzel Washington)
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Best Actor (Denzel Washington)