When asked why he chose to do a film version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen paused, and jokingly said, “ because my wife told me to.” He was only half-joking.
Frances McDormand, Coen’s wife for more than three decades, had been trying for years to persuade her husband to direct Macbeth as a play. He kept saying no. Then he said maybe. But only if it was done as a movie. Still, he was hesitant.
Then, according to McDormand, she told another big shot director (she wouldn’t say who) that she was trying to get her husband to do Shakespeare, and this unnamed director told her “maybe you should start Joel off with a simpler Shakespeare play.” This condescending remark was a challenge. And, McDormand jokes, it may have been what finally made her husband do what she wanted.
Here is, of course, a hilarious parallel between McDormand and Coen, and the Macbeths. You can imagine Joel Coen pouring his morning coffee from his French press, with his scraggly beard, and his directorial scarf slightly swaying as he shakes his head, saying, “Honey… Macbeth … I don’t know if I’m up for it.” Then Frances McDormand strides across the dining room, snatching the French press out of his hand, slamming it on the counter, and grabbing Joel’s face. She stares into his eyes and says, “When you durst do it, then you were a man!”
The question of why do another Macbeth is bound up with the question: Why do we continue to do Shakespeare, period? Too often it’s because the production team has a particular new hot take on the text that justifies re-staging, ad infinitum, the same old story.
War hero meets witches on a trail. Witches tell him he’ll be king, but also tell him his buddy ol’ pal will have sons who will be kings. This confuses the war hero. He then tells his wife about what the witches said. His wife? Super into it. Together they lose their minds as ambition and greed possess them totally and they slash a bloody path to the throne. It is the story of a tyrant, haunted by ghosts of those he’s killed to get what he wants. But when he gets where he wants to be he is tormented by guilt and shame, so the security and power he sought in kingship is undermined by paranoia and lots of bad karma.
Classic archetypal banger.
Coen’s take on Macbeth, as McDormand puts it, is a movie about “a post-menopausal couple” who are “at the end of their ambition rather than the beginning.”
To achieve this marriage-centric vision, they altered the text, so instead of Macbeth telling his wife she should “bring forth man-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males,” they changed it to, “…thy undaunted mettle should have composed nothing but males.” So in this Macbeth, part of the couple’s plight is, apparently, that they wanted to have kids but couldn’t.
But adding one word to the text just isn’t enough to communicate that intended premise.
I wouldn’t have picked up on it if McDormand hadn’t explained it in a press interview.
The bigger issue with doing Macbeth as a movie “about a marriage” is that Washington and McDormand don’t convince us they love or know each other at all: They are emotionally thousands of miles apart. If this was supposed to be about their post-menopausal marital struggle, Coen should have let the camera linger on them longer and in wider shots, letting us feel their togetherness. Instead, too often he jumps in for close-ups or cuts away, puncturing intimate tension.
Whether the Macbeths are at the end or beginning of their ambition, there needs to be a sense of urgency in them and in the world around them. If, as Denzel Washington said in an interview, “This is their last shot (at securing the kingship) and the clock is ticking,” then the director must sweep us up, as soon as possible, in the opportunism, greed, madness, and bloodlust.
But in this movie, there’s almost no blood.
The first scene establishes the strange pace of the whole movie. After a battle, a captain comes to tell King Duncan they’ve won. But Coen has the captain saunter out of the fog, not a care in the world. Small gash on his head? No big deal. Ralph Ineson, as the captain, delivers his lines with no immediacy. He seems as if he just walked out of a spa, with a towel around his waist, and he’s asking the front desk where to go to get his massage.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, the shortest of Shakespeares’ tragedies, can’t start this way. I don’t mean morally, it shouldn’t start this way. I mean, it can’t start this way in the way your car can’t start if there’s no gas in it.
The other pacing challenge in a short tragedy is characterization.
Actors need to establish their character arcs boldly, and as soon as possible, so later we believe what happens to them is what, tragically, had to happen to them.
In one of her earliest scenes, McDormand gives her “unsex me here” soliloquy as Lady Macbeth. McDormand gives us a tiny bit of eroticism, but we need more. We need weird pagan animalistic gnarliness. But McDormand doesn’t let herself be swept up by or filled up with the supernatural powers she calls upon. So later, when she goes mad, we don’t care. She doesn’t successfully establish Lady Macbeth’s epic stature and gives us no visceral sense of the character’s lonely otherworldliness.
Washington, similarly, doesn’t start strong enough. For the first couple of acts Washington basically whispers all his lines, so when he explodes into fury and madness later, we’re unmoved by it. There is no solid base or starting block for him to push off from, and so the end of the movie has no tragic heft.
In theory, McDormand should be the perfect Lady Macbeth. Mildly creepy gravitas, a gorgeous rugged earthy face both masculine and feminine. But Lady Macbeth is a transcendent character not because of her looks but because she is a tidal wave of will and hunger that overwhelms her and her husband. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is a barely perceptible breeze.
When asked about the process of adapting this play into a movie, McDormand said that “after 400 years everyone has done everything. We’re not inventing anything new.”
But this movie does offer something new. An original image in the production history of Macbeth that will resonate far into the future: Kathryn Hunter as the Three Witches and as the Old Man.
Hunter’s voice is horrifying. It almost compensates for the lack of horror in the rest of the movie.
Hunter sounds like a wraith that has suddenly appeared behind you in a dark snowy alley, a wraith that just smoked two packs of Newports: You feel and smell her rank breath on your flesh, her cold spindly fingers on the nape of your neck.
She is present in that rare and powerful way that transcends the screen and enters reality.
Hunter, a well-respected stage actor, is the only actor here who uses their body in a striking and obviously intentional way. She transforms from a stone into a crow before your eyes, and you believe it.
In Hunter’s witch scenes, Coen’s directorial vision is most coherent. The high contrast of the witch’s black shawl is stunning against the stark white sand. The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio gives us a feeling of closeness and also distance. Coen frames her contortions and caws with sublimity, precision, and horror, like an old Diane Arbus photograph.
I wish, when Coen was asked why he made Macbeth into a movie, he had said, “because I love the language.”
According to Washington, Coen’s one rule for the actors regarding the Elizabethan language was “no stick-up-the-butt Shakespeare.”
It’s true, we don’t need pretension in Shakespeare. But to over-extend in the opposite direction, and perform Shakespeare in a “modern” or understated way, doesn’t make it more accessible. It deflates the power of the poetry.
Corey Hawkins, at times, shines as Macduff. When he does it’s because, in those moments of despair, he lets Shakespeare’s text enter his body, play upon him, and then he shares that experience with us.
It’s unclear whether Coen likes Shakespeare’s text at all, because he avoids it in the pursuit of shades of mood and atmosphere. That’s what makes this a bad adaptation.
I suspect the real reason this movie exists is that Denzel Washington agreed to do it.
But Washington is so inappropriately cocksure and impenetrable that when he soliloquizes, instead of revealing a horrifying inner world, he sounds like he’s casually talking about someone else. He isn’t vulnerable enough to be haunted.
Is there an imaginative force within Washington that he, at this late stage in his superstardom, would dare let overwhelm him? If there isn’t, he can’t play Macbeth.
I imagine Coen sitting in the director’s chair, Washington rattling off lines, failing to distinguish images in his monologues, not relishing the language, and Coen nodding affirmingly, giving a thumbs-up while staring at the monitor, saying, “Great Denzel. Just great. There isn’t a stick up your butt.”
Unlike the lead performances, this movie’s sets are effective. They are sterile, stable, and have sculptural integrity that evokes an ambiguous blend of safety and danger. But no amount of production design can compensate for poor lead performances and poor direction.
At the end of the movie, I kept asking myself, if a director isn’t going to tackle Shakespeares’ text head-on, then why do Shakespeare in the first place?
After all, Macbeth isn’t a story original to Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth he looked at the source material for his version (Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland, England and Ireland); he thought about the times he was in and the audience he’d perform it for. Then he adapted the story into a play that took the essential sauce from the old Macbeth story but represented it in a fresh way for his time. In a language that people of the time could understand.
Akira Kurosawa did the same thing with Throne of Blood. That adaptation (like his King Lear adaptation Ran) was a masterpiece because Kurosawa let go of Shakespeare, and the past, and told the story as he saw it.
I think if we’re going to keep performing Shakspeare we have three options:
The first is to do Shakespeare, meaning wholly commit to and trust his text. Find an entire company of actors who can express its depths, and do it. (This does happen, but mostly in the United Kingdom.)
The second option is, we stop performing Shakespeare, period. If we’re not going to centralize his text, and instead shy away from the challenges it presents in performance, we just don’t do it.
The third option, even better than the first two: We follow in Kurosawa’s footsteps, and we sort of do Shakespeare. We do him by letting go of him. Meaning we look at something old, take what we like, and from that, create something new and in the language of our time.