The power of restriction: Joel Coen’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth"
Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth, now streaming on Apple TV+

A movie that honors a play’s theatricality: That’s what director Joel Coen said he wanted for The Tragedy of Macbeth, his new adaptation of the Scottish play. The result is a brilliant interpretation that’s my favorite kind of Shakespeare: it combines the artifice of theater with the techniques of film, especially the use of the close-up, where the thinking behind the verse gets as much attention as the verse itself.

There’s a moment early on, for example, when Denzel Washington’s title character opens his mouth to speak — and then decides not to. That tiny beat of uncertainty signals that one of our most compelling film actors — who commands the screen with such theatrical bravado in roles like Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences and the swaggering Alonzo in Training Day — will be holding his considerable power in check to portray Shakespeare’s reluctant yet ambitious tragic hero. Shakespeare’s plays are nothing if not studies of contrasts: comedy and tragedy, high-born and low, poetry and prose, and, in this play especially, fair and foul. The contrast of casting Washington, an actor of great charm and energetic presence — and then reining him in — creates a powerful tension between actor and role.

Washington’s not alone. While his decision to take that breath and not speak feels like the actor’s choice, it fits with the overall quiet intensity most of the cast bring to their lines, and that feels like director Coen’s choice. Rather than encouraging his actors to deliver their speeches grandly (Washington has said the on-set mandate was “no ‘stick-up-the-butt’ acting”), Coen saves his biggest theatrical flourishes for gorgeously shot expressionistic sets and sudden explosions of violence and supernatural surprise.

Shakespeare tells us that Macbeth is a man of action, capable of “unseam[ing a foe] from the nave to th’ chops / And fix[ing] his head upon [the] battlements.” In three brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, Washington becomes a coolly efficient warrior who’s only comfortable in battle, and it’s perhaps this unthinkingly violent instinct that has held Macbeth back in other areas. Because when not facing a foe in the heat of combat, the audacity of the treason Macbeth’s contemplating has him timidly hiding in shadows, agonized by guilt and fear, and confessing to his Lady, “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”

Writer/director Joel Coen and Frances McDormand on the set of The Tragedy of Macbeth
Writer/director Joel Coen and Frances McDormand behind the scenes of The Tragedy of Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth, Frances McDormand — who also played her in 2016 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a production directed by Daniel Sullivan — has a co-star equal to her formidability. McDormand and Washington create an instantly compelling couple, and as she schemes and pushes her husband to unspeakable acts, her Lady Macbeth throws in shades of genuine affection and concern for his mental state. Both wife and husband remain recognizably human, neither falling into scheming evil caricatures, and their ages (mid-to-late 60s) give a rare urgency to their plan as it might literally be their last grab (stab?) at power.

Coen also inventively conceives the three witches as embodied by a single performer (the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter, who also appears in a fourth role). Hunter’s amazing physicality is its own gasp-inducing special effect, and while the witches incite and torment Macbeth, they never feel to be completely controlling events, leaving plenty of room for human agency and evil. It’s not even clear the witches are human, as they assume the look and posture of the ravens and crows so prominent in Shakespeare’s imagery, and are able to summon flocks of them — a conspiracy of ravens or a murder of crows, to use their proper collective nouns — to further confound and disturb Macbeth.

Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth
Kathryn Hunter in The Tragedy of Macbeth

Shot in phenomenally detailed black and white and framed in an aspect ratio that brings to mind classic silent movies, Coen boxes in his actors, putting them on sets — including large exteriors — that are obviously shot on a sound stage. Rather than embrace the realistic expansiveness in which film can indulge, Coen restricts his characters at almost every opportunity, including the climactic battle between Macbeth and Macduff, which is fought atop a constricted narrow battlement, adding pressure to characters feeling trapped with little room to maneuver and fighting against the limits of their fate and their surroundings.

As it happens, Macbeth is also one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic plays, especially near the end, when it accelerates towards its conclusion with increasingly short scenes that feel like cross-cutting in a movie. Coen has talked about how he built on these similarities by using “parallel editing,” cutting back and forth between scenes that happen at the same time. “How brilliant Shakespeare was as a dramatist,” he said, “to anticipate that kind of [visual] storytelling.”

With its strong point of view, excellent performances, and diverse international and multi-racial cast, Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth could well become the new introduction to the play for students, but it’s by no means complete. The scenes between Malcolm and Macduff are almost entirely cut, the role of Ross is subtly reimagined, and the film doesn’t spend much time clarifying some of the play’s story points, explaining who each character is, or visualizing the spoken exposition. And some moments that are open to interpretation — does Lady Macbeth actually faint, or only pretend to as a distraction? — remain unclarified. The film doesn’t strike me as a Macbeth for beginners, but it’s a powerful interpretation featuring two outstanding central performances (and uniformly excellent supporting ones).

There are those who will ask whether this film represents “Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” I would argue that since he wrote his plays to be performed, not read, there’s actually no such thing as “Shakespeare’s Macbeth” until an actor steps up and plays him. “You don’t make lists for a generation’s Macbeth,” Frances McDormand told an audience while her leading man sat beside her. “One is born and then they play it.” Denzel Washington is everybody’s Macbeth, at least for today and — presumably — “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”