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Denzel Washington stars in a frighteningly good adaptation.




As I sat down to watch the new movie from Macbeth’s Tragedy by director Joel Coen, theatrically released and now streaming on Apple TV+, I realized that I had seen macbeth more than any other Shakespeare play. While the popularity of certain works of Shakespeare has come and gone with changing cultural tastes, over the past 30 years macbeth reliably stayed in slot #3, just allowing King Lear and Hamlet to compete for the first prize. Its continued popularity and cultural relevance makes some sense. macbeth is among Shakespeare’s most well-traced and effective plays. It can be directed to a number of recognizable genres, from supernatural horror to feudal political thriller to revenge tragedy. It comes chockablock with famous lines. And his story of ambition, violence, madness and the limitation of individual free will speaks to us regardless of our current crisis.

But the games’ enduring popularity is also odd because macbeth is among Shakespeare’s most desperate works. At the end of Hamlet, much of the cast is dead, but we can at least hope that Fortinbras and Horatio will manage to cobble together a new, more stable and fairer nation from the broken pieces that remain after the reign of King Claudius. macbeth takes place on an ever-turning wheel, a wheel that cannot be escaped. For all the play’s brutal violence, nothing was accomplished in its ending: the play begins with the defeat of a traitorous Thane of Cawdor and the redistribution of his lands and title, and it ends with the defeat of another traitor Thane of Cawdor. Cawdor and yet another redistribution of land and title. At the beginning of the 17and century, the name Success contained more definitions than today, i.e. the accomplishment of something, the result of something, the progress of time and the succession of heirs. Shakespeare, who couldn’t resist a good play on words, organized the play around these multiple meanings. Macbeth succeeded beyond his wildest imagination by assassinating the king and succeeding him to the throne. But he lacks an heir to succeed him, and so his successes turn to ashes in his mouth. Hamlet learns that because life is over, preparation is everything. Macbeth’s great epiphany before he dies is that all success means you’re next to succeed, and the inevitability of death means life is a story / told by a fool, full of sound and fury, / don’t meaning nothing.

Although it is tempting to imagine that macbeth stems from a middle-aged Shakespeare becoming the preeminent playwright of his time and having a midlife crisis, the plays of despair likely have political and cultural origins. During the three years preceding macbeths first, Shakespeare had seen a plague kill a fifth of the population of London, and he had also lived through the Gunpowder Plot, a failed insurrection by religious extremists that nearly destroyed Parliament. Emotionally, these events are all too familiar to us today, but director Joel Coen isn’t interested in finding those kinds of contemporary resonances. As in his previous work with his brother, Ethan, Coen chooses to move away from incisive political commentary to return to one of his favorite themes: the struggle of the individual to exist in an impenetrable and capricious universe. Macbeth’s Tragedy is really a movie from a director who inserted the Divine Presence to be Shot title card into one of the movies-within-a-movie of Hello, Caesar! and made Richard Kind cry over the injustices of the universe by A serious man.

[Read: How the Plague Ravaged Shakespeares World and Inspired His Work]

Joel Coen is part of a generation of filmmakers who, through the licensing of old film libraries on TV, grew up far more film-literate than anyone who came before him. He has spoken in past interviews of spending hours with his brother, Ethan, watching the family television in suburban Minneapolis, watching whatever movie was on and learning that all genres of movies were simply means of different expressions. His filmography bears witness to this. In the 38 years since his first film, Coen has directed westerns (The real courage, There is no country for old people, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), a sexual prank (Burn after reading), a picaresque (O brother, where are you?), goofy comedies (the Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty), realistic period dramas (A serious man, Inside Llewyn Davis), and several blacks, including my personal vote for most underrated of his films, The Man Who Wasn’t There. For macbeth, he branched out into new genres, attempting his first classic play and filming it in a German Expressionist style, with black-and-white cinematography, high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting, and sets that eschew verisimilitude and reflect the subjectivity of the characters.

The results are airtightmacbeth is the most suffocatingly controlled of all of Coens’s works, but deliberately so. The fate of the characters macbeth cannot be escaped. They are trapped and a fate has been spoken against them, a fate that is reflected in a 4:3 aspect ratio that confines the characters to a small, narrow box and spaces that never disguise their artificiality. Whether indoors or out, environments seem built on a sound stage. Instead of any attempt at realism, we get cinematography so crisp and lit that the spaces have a dizzying quality. The walls lack any decoration. Everything is cut with shadows and overwhelmed with fog. Scenes flow in and out of each other in slow crossfades that make environments and people bleed into each other. Watching the movie, you can’t get rid of the feeling that this macbeth takes place in a series of spaces absolutely hostile to human life, spaces in which joy, love, loyalty and honor could not grow. The earth looks scorched. It’s a cursed moor shattered by war, a land of paranoia and cold, bloody power games.

The film’s deliberate stagnation also solves a major problem with many of Shakespeare’s film adaptations. Shakespeare’s plays were written for very specific spaces and circumstances, and those origins are embedded in the texts themselves and often quite difficult to shake. Films that attempt to force its scripts into a purely cinematic and mostly realistic visual vocabulary often have the unfortunate side effect of emphasizing how truly uncinematic the text really is. By basing the visuals of the films on the most theatrical movement in the history of cinema, Macbeth’s Tragedy takes a core problem in Shakespeare’s adaptation project and makes it a conscious choice. Have never been taken out of the world of film by the theatricality inherent in the materials. Instead, we remain imprisoned there with its characters.

And it’s that feeling of being stuck in a world that we don’t fully understand and can’t control. Macbeth’s Tragedy is the most interesting. Of all the versions of the Scottish play I’ve seen, this is by far the scariest, a work of cosmic horror in which supernatural beings pursue their own games, reveling in their ability to manipulate and destroy captured mortals. it is their canvas. As witches, Kathryn Hunter, a virtuoso shapeshifter and Shakespeare veteran largely unknown to moviegoers, is genuinely eerie, her body coiling in on itself, her voice scraping the low end of her register. By going all out on this idea, the film downplays other quirky themes of the destructive and ultimately hollow nature of ambition. The storyline omits Macbeths to be so is nothing but to be safely so the word, which is when the character realizes that he will never be happy, even if he is king . Instead of raging against the world and its fate like Toshiro Mifune does in Akira Kurosawas’ adaptation, throne of blood, Denzel Washington plays Macbeth in a much lower key. Washingtons Macbeth is an older, world-weary man, fearful every moment that he might take a wrong step and wreak havoc on himself and his wife, and only rarely channeling the volcanic challenge we’ve come to expect. As Lady Macbeth, Frances McDormand, who has already played the role on stage, brilliantly traces the arc of a character who begins as the instigator of the plot to assassinate the king and rule Scotland, but breaks gradually with her husband because of his murder of Banquo, then falls into guilt and madness for what she has done. They feel more human than most Macbeth portrayals, and a bit like the protagonists of Coens’ beloved film noir, who always think they’re one step ahead of everyone else, only to find themselves two steps away. behind.

Macbeth’s Tragedy is for people already familiar, perhaps even well-versed, in the original piece. The interpretive choices the film makes, which include altering its plot by stitching multiple parts together in the character of Ross (an amazing Alex Hassell), only read as particularly significant if you know what they’re reconfiguring. The actors set aside the telegraphy audiences are used to in Shakespearean performances and deliver the lines almost like everyday speech, playing their scenes to their partners rather than the crowd.

What remains in the mind after this version of Macbeth’s Tragedy isn’t specific line deliveries or moments of bravery, although the actors all do well, but sights and sounds. The bloodstain on Macbeth’s cheek. The spinning crows. The fog from which the characters emerge. Carter Burwells’ ominous strings score. The dripping and the bumping and the pounding. These fragments remain, like the shards of a dream, the one from which we are happy to have woken up but also to which we aspire to return, to discover the depths which are hidden there.




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