Stylised text of 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' with a sketch of a crown and dagger.

December 30, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

The Tragedy of Macbeth (dir. Joel Coen, A24 Films)

Films of Macbeth have a fraught relationship with space. It’s a play whose own spaces – psychic, architectural, geographic, emotional, supernatural – are particularly fluid, and whose tautness paradoxically combines abstraction with the impression of nuanced interiority. To capture the play’s juxtapositions within the conventions of mainstream screen naturalism isn’t an easy task, and thus most films of the play either strive for an environmental realism that closely informs the action (Polanski, Woolcock, Kurzel) or else develop their own abstracted filmscapes (Welles, Monkman, most of the stage-to-screen adaptations). Joel Coen’s version, though, develops a complex relationship to space that shifts with the play’s own machinations, shifting and evolving around its characters in Escher-like configurations that efficiently and evocatively get to the heart of what the scene is about. It’s space acting in service of the play, rather than the play being forced to meet a specific aesthetic, and it’s key to the success of this Macbeth.

Thick mist covers this Scotland, whose landscapes emerge as if from a fever dream. The bloodied soldier (Ralph Ineson, who is starting to feel like a day player for A24 after his turn as the Green Knight) stumbles across sand while three ravens circle overhead, as if waiting for him to fall. Bruno Delbonnel’s camera performs the first of its many tricksy inversions, initially giving us the impression that the camera is staring straight up into a white sky against which the ravens stand out in stark black; before the soldier appears, trudging across the white sand, forcing us to suddenly understand the camera as staring directly down. Later, an eclipsed sun seen from the ground will suddenly turn into a pool of bright light on a black floor, seen from above. Denzel Washington’s Macbeth leans on a pillar as he watches the arrival of Duncan, then the background shifts around him so that he is suddenly outside the evening’s banquet. The film expects its audience to recover instantly from these inversions of space and time, collapsing the film’s spatio-temporal logic in on itself and ensuring that the world never remains certain.

The slippages of time and space consciously aim to disrupt the viewer, much as the witches themselves aim to disorient Macbeth with their own tricks of perspective. Kathryn Hunter is perfectly cast as the three witches. She appears first on the sand, leg contorted around her arm (seeing such physical dexterity on the screen is alarming in itself, and a reminder of Hunter’s unique value as an actor), talking to herself, rasping each syllable of the witches’ dialogue. But when she meets Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel), she rears herself up straight and wraps a cloak around her, then stands in front of a pool of water, in which are reflected two images of her, that then flip around to stand next to her. I’ve rarely seen witches so genuinely terrifying (especially with the jump scare as the three shadows of Hunter disappear into the fog, only for three ravens to suddenly burst out and surprise Banquo and Macbeth), and the inversion of reflections and the uncanny use of space is part of this. Later, Macbeth says he will go to see the witches, but instead stays in his own castle and awakes to find them crouching on the rafters above his head, using his own room’s floor – which suddenly fills with water in a particularly dreamlike moment – as the cauldron. In the face of such command of natural and architectural space, Macbeth can only stand amazed.

Command of space is key to control in this world of optical illusions. For contrast, the straight lines enjoyed by Harry Melling’s Malcolm and Corey Hawkins’s Macduff give them clarity. ‘England’ is a single, infinite avenue lined with trees; the two walk down it together to plan their invasion, and Malcolm’s testing of Macduff is cut to avoid muddying the waters. Ross (Alex Hassell) approaches them directly, and the ensuing scene happens in an almost two-dimensional plane. Then, Malcolm and Siward (Richard Short) have their armies line up down the same avenue, which directly faces Dunsinane. The clarity of the mission admits of no corners or dead ends. At the film’s end, further, Macduff confronts Macbeth on a battlement so narrow that there isn’t even space to properly swing a sword; the narrowness of the alley funnels Macduff directly towards Macbeth with the directness of an arrow (and when Macbeth’s head is cut off, it flies off to the side, into the mists on either side of this alley).

There is rarely anything so direct for Washington’s Macbeth. Confined to Dunsinane for the majority of the film, with its shafts of light, its precariously steep stairwells, and its mixture of medieval scale and modernist straight lines, Macbeth frequently loiters behind pillars, stands in the shadows cast by overhanging walls, or lingers in dank rooms where water pours through open ceilings. His one moment of straight direction comes as the shape of the doorhandle leading to Duncan’s (Brendan Gleeson) quarters appears to him as a dagger. For the whole of this speech, Macbeth strides purposefully down a continuous corridor created by a wall on one side and pillars on the other, the shafts of light from between the pillars setting out his road for him, until he reaches the handle and can see it for what it is. This moment of firm purpose is juxtaposed with the uncertain angles of the rest of his time in the castle.

Washington plays Macbeth with a light touch, the upper register of his magnificent voice in play more than one might expect. This Macbeth is thoughtful, responsive, and – to use a word I’ve already used – amazed. From almost the first moment we meet him, he seems to have been overtaken by events and to be trying to catch up. Perhaps his best moment comes in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder as he walks back into the bedchamber where Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) is waiting for him in a state of distraction. When he slumps down on the bed next to his wife, he looks old, as if the act has taken everything out of him. The daggers are in his boots, hidden, and he offers them to the furious Lady Macbeth in a state of confusion that finally manifests in anger when he throws the basin in which he tries to wash his hands across the room. His bursts of impulse extend to his choice to kill the two grooms as they begin stirring; a desperate look from Lady Macbeth makes clear that this wasn’t the plan, but he talks himself out of it.

Macbeth always seems more comfortable in the shadows. In the circular dungeon-like room where he meets the two murderers, he confidently and eloquently talks the two simple, scared men around to his version of events before sending them on their way. Conversely, when he walks out into the populated banqueting hall, he is exposed and uncomfortable, and the sudden appearance of a raven and then Banquo’s ghost in the corridor outside sends him scurrying back to the narrow corridors, the court all following him into the tight space. A lovely scene sees him open a door to find himself confronted with Banquo swinging a sword at him, only for us then to see the same scene from everyone else’s point of view; a raven is flapping its wings around his head. Macbeth only seems to become certain when he puts himself squarely on the path the witches have set him on; Washington brings in his most commanding voice when announcing how he will surprise Macduff’s castle, a show of command that leaves a stunned Lady Macduff slumping onto a window seat and looking in quiet surprise at the clump of hair that has just detached from her head.

Macbeth’s problem is that he never finds his place. Instead, it’s Ross who commands the shadows, in a reading of the role clearly inspired by Game of Thrones’s Littlefinger. Hassell’s Ross is aligned with the ravens of the witches right from his first appearance in a close fitting black get-up with angled collar reminiscent of wings. Whether he’s always been their agent or becomes it as the film goes on is left suitably ambiguous, but the birdlike Ross is constantly watching – he stands aloft to eavesdrop on Malcolm and Donalbain as they plan their escape. This Ross doesn’t seem to be a fighter, and yet he is the one who holds a sword to the captured Thane of Cawdor’s neck (he has brought the Thane with him when he informs Macbeth of his promotion). Then, in an especially striking scene, he’s sitting at a crossroads with the Old Man – played again by Kathryn Hunter – when Macduff leaves the castle to return to Fife. After exchanging ominous messages, Ross turns again to the Old Man, and as they speak of portents, the sun is eclipsed. Hassell and Hunter’s performances in this short scene are mesmerising, Ross seeming alternately unnerved and in control as the evil passes overhead. If he wasn’t aligned with the Witches already, he is from this point on: he is stood at Macbeth’s right hand when Banquo takes his leave, and then he joins the murderers waiting at the same crossroads for Banquo. Ross doesn’t take part in the brutal fight himself, but he follows Fleance, who runs into and hides in the long grass. In a long, creepy sequence that draws on The Night of the Hunter, the priest-like Ross with firebrand held high walks through the long grass, and we see from Fleance’s point of view as the firebrand comes closer, until Ross is smiling down at the young man. At the end of the film, Ross returns to the crossroads and recovers the captured Fleance from the Old Man, riding off over the rise of a hill, disappearing into a dip in the road, before an enormous murder of ravens emerges from the space they had just occupied. Ross’s slippage between natural and supernatural spaces is the film’s boldest interpretive gesture, and sometimes feels a bit over-determined – I’m not sure it’s necessary that he ascends the steps in order to kill the disturbed Lady Macbeth, as is clearly implied – but shows precisely the kind of control of space in line with the forces of evil that Macbeth never fully achieves. It’s the Rosses who will inherit this world, not the Macbeths nor the Fleances.

The supporting performances are uniformly superb. Melling and Gleeson get disappointingly little to do; Malcolm and Duncan occupy largely symbolic roles here, but both bring warmth and fear to their roles (including as Duncan wakes up to find Macbeth in the business of murdering him). Carvel’s vocal work as Banquo is pitch-perfect, balancing a cynical scepticism with an action-oriented certainty which contrasts markedly with Washington’s almost casual diffidence. Carvel also gets the only moment marked theatrically as a soliloquy; at the time of Macbeth’s coronation, he walks across a darkened room into a spotlight and addresses the camera directly, before the rest of the castle emerges around him in time for Macbeth to spy his one-time ally. Hawkins is a calm, stoic Macduff who allows his grief at Ross’s news of his family to slowly emerge, a build-up of unbearable feeling rather than an explosion, which he saves for his actions in the frenetic final fight. And Miles Anderson is a dignified, anxious Lennox, with a touch of Anton Lesser’s nervy energy about him, as he takes point in the banquet scene in bearing witness to Macbeth’s fit.

McDormand, meanwhile, is an elusive Lady Macbeth, who seems isolated within the film. She is at her best in her haunted appearances following Macbeth’s promise to murder Macduff’s family. In another theatrical moment, the Doctor and Lady-in-Waiting confine themselves to a single frame to watch Lady Macbeth, never sharing the screen with her as she goes through her sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth lowers herself carefully down steep steps before walking over to a fixed basin where she listens to the drips of water as if they are knocks at the door (and if Craig Berkey doesn’t win awards for his sound design, there’s some serious injustice). In the first half of the film, McDormand presents Lady Macbeth as defined by her poise and control, and her commanding tone next to a husband who sometimes seems ready to just give up. When she marches across the room where Macbeth thinks he is battling Banquo’s ghost and opens the window to let the raven out, Macbeth stares at her in mute incomprehension of her boldness. Yet their roles suddenly reverse following the witches’ prophecies, as Macbeth boldly strides out and Lady Macbeth slumps in horror. Thereafter, she drifts through the castle. When the war begins, she gets out of bed and stands in silent witness to the soldiers running around; it’s only Ross who notices her and ascends the steps where she is standing. We don’t see what happens, just her body lying at the foot of the stairs later, and it’s perhaps the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for Lady Macbeth, rendered helpless at this point in the face of more experienced manipulators.

The quality of the performances is a relief following the 2015 Justin Kurzel film, which flattened out an excellent cast in the pursuit of a visually and aurally monotonous aesthetic. But it’s no disrespect to the actors to say that this is a director’s film. Almost every shot feels like it could be turned into a still photograph, whether the perfectly composed close-ups that stare into the depths of characters’ souls or the sweeping epic shots (Lady Macbeth standing, hair billowing, on an outcropping of rock). The impressionist architecture of the castle is endlessly fascinating, creating clean lines and perfect shadows that engulf performers, divide them, and offset them beautifully. This is complemented by superlative sound design which allows the knocking at the castle gates to reverberate around the cinema, and drips of blood to rhythmically counterpose the imminent arrival of Macduff. And in the evocation of a Scotland that only yields precisely what is needed for the given scene from its endless mists, Coen creates a world that is produced by its participants, and that bends to the whim of those with the real control.

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