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What’s Regicide, Doc?

REVIEW: The Tragedy of Macbeth is Shakespeare with a touch of Chuck Jones

• January 3, 2022 3:00 pm

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Joel Coen’s new movie turns Shakespeare’s Macbeth into an expressionist German silent film in which the characters talk—call it The Cabinet of the Thane of Caligari. It’s silvery black and white, with intentionally off-kilter sets, sunless skies, and grassless land—designed to evoke the growing derangement of its title character as he descends from a brave and loyal noble into a genocidal totalitarian paranoid of a very modern sort. The Tragedy of Macbeth reminds us again of the literary intelligence and critical care Coen always brings to his work. (This is his 19th feature and the first he’s made without the collaboration of his brother Ethan.) Only someone who has engaged deeply and seriously with Shakespeare’s most chilling play—and only someone with a complete and thorough command of how to control every aspect of a film’s construction—could have made this haunting and eye-popping picture.

Even so, there’s something rotten in the state of Scotland. Coen’s Macbeth is a fascinating, respectable, and admirable piece of work, but it’s a failure. It’s amazing to look at, but not so amazing to listen to. The performances are completely subordinated to the design, and at times, I fear, the design is so extreme in its angled distortions that the movie doesn’t so much evoke Shakespeare as it does the Chuck Jones cartoon "What’s Opera, Doc."

The problem derives from Coen’s unfortunately static interpretation of a play in which the inconstancy of nature plays a central part. Macbeth is a play about the dangers of ambition and how its pursuit can be so destabilizing that nature itself rebels against the new order. But the Scotland we see here is a desert-like ruin from the first moment. Thus, Macbeth’s embrace of murder and tyranny does not cause the natural calamities the characters keep telling us have befallen Scotland and its people. That is a fatal interpretive flaw.

While Coen’s vision is too unvarying, the central performances are too tentative. Macbeth hungers for the throne while Lady Macbeth hungers to be the power behind the throne. Their hunger overwhelms their reason, turns them evil, and drives them insane. But Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are determined to underplay their wildly emotional parts, to speak them quietly and intimately. The goal is clearly to make the language understood and not to eat the scenery. But if there ever were a text that demanded overacting, this is the one. Washington and McDormand (who is married to Coen) seem more to be elements in Cohen’s design scheme, chess pieces he is moving about in three dimensions.

Washington’s cool approach in the early scenes gives us no sense of the unsatisfiable appetite for power awakened in Macbeth by the prophecy of the three weird sisters that he will soon be king. McDormand finally comes to frightening life in her sleepwalking scene, but since she has not established the inhuman ruthlessness her unconscious mind rebels against, the whole bit functions like a horror-movie jump scare. The only genuinely striking performance in this movie comes from Kathryn Hunter, a British stage performer known for her skills as a physical contortionist. She plays all three witches, and she is staggering—frightening and otherworldly and malign.

You should see The Tragedy of Macbeth when it debuts on Apple TV Plus next week. It’s something special. It’s just not good enough.

Published under: Movie Reviews