The Tragedy of Macbeth: Passion Play, by David Bax
For twenty years, Joel Coen was the only credited director on what we had already been calling “Coen brothers films” before Ethan’s contribution was made official with 2004’s The Ladykillers. Now, for the first time, it’s actually true. The Tragedy of Macbeth is a solo Joel effort and it stands apart from the duo’s oeuvre. A direct adaptation of William Shakespeare does not suggest the postmodernism for which the Coens are known. It’s in black and white, which they’ve only done once, with 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. And it’s in the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio, which they’ve never done.
Given the darkness of the source material, one would think the lack of color would be used to drape the film in an imposing starkness. But, though “stark” would definitely describe the production design, the dominant effect is one of stunning beauty. The flattering, glamorous way the principals–Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth–are lit and framed reminded me less of, say, Ingmar Bergman and more of Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress if it were shot on undressed sets.
“Undressed” doesn’t mean plain or boring, though. The production design of The Tragedy of Macbeth is otherworldly in its simplicity. The castle walls and floors are as smooth and unblemished as the new canvas of the king’s tent in a war camp. The only clean line we never see is the horizon; every vista in this world disappears into fog. This helpfully obscures the fact that there’s likely not anything actually beyond it other than the wall of the soundstage and some coiled cabling. But, more importantly, it gives the settings the feel of being simultaneously infinite and claustrophobic. Macbeth is trapped with his torments in a place that doesn’t end. A simpler word for that is hell.
One other effect of the physical plainness of the sets–not an accidental one–is that it encourages one to focus on the actors. They’re often front and center in Coen’s frame anyway and the preponderance of close-ups can’t help but recall Carl Theodor Dreyer.
So far, I’ve spent most of this review discussing technical elements of filmmaking. But, just as with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, all of those choices exist to support the players. In that film, Maria Falconetti gave the greatest performance in the history of cinema. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Washington and McDormand are not far behind.