What makes Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth the finest Shakespeare screen adaptation yet

The Tragedy of Macbeth is, without a shadow of doubt, the finest Shakespeare movie I have ever seen; better than Akira Kurosawa, better than Vishal Bhardwaj.

Aditya Mani Jha January 17, 2022 14:47:39 IST
What makes Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth the finest Shakespeare screen adaptation yet

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth

Nobody was shocked that Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, a sleek, black-and-white William Shakespeare adaptation starring Hollywood titans Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, turned out to be jaw-on-the-floor good.

This lineup is as good as it gets for Hollywood; McDormand even said so in a recent New York Times interview, noting that the film represented these three major artists at the peak of their powers. At 80-odd minutes, the film pares Shakespeare’s peerless dialogue down to its prickly essentials.

This was, without a shadow of doubt, the finest Shakespeare movie I have ever seen; better than Akira Kurosawa, better than Vishal Bhardwaj. 

The primary visual references for Coen’s Macbeth all came from the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, as well as certain Hollywood films that adopted a similar style. Production designer Stefan Dechant revealed that Coen had given him a full photo album before the shooting began. “It cried out German Expressionism, with images from movies (Siegfried, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sunrise, and The Night of the Hunter), architecture (Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City, with its square tower with two very black walls), photography (Hiroshi Sugimoto’s monochromatic, soft focus impression of the Barragan house), and theater (modernist stage designer Edward Gordon Craig’s use of large geometric blocks).”

What that brief list reveals is the care and attention with which Coen and Dechant went about recreating Scotland for Macbeth, in what was an entirely indoors shoot. The film’s production design offers several strategies while adapting a play into a movie. Look at the Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) reference, for example. Craig, the son of an actor himself, later came to be known as one of the leading lights of modernist 20th century theatrical design. One of his enduring innovations was the usage of large mobile panels in geometric shapes to indicate natural backgrounds — or even the moods and emotions of the actors. 

You can see the influence of Gordon Craig’s techniques at several places in Coen’s Macbeth. The way Macbeth’s castle looms out of the fog, the verticality of Macbeth’s seat-of-power in the second half — and most strikingly, the arches of the throne room moving around, to reflect Macbeth’s loosening grip on reality. That last touch was accomplished via a classic bit of stagecraft: the arches were built on wheeled platforms and manipulated mid-scene (much like another patented Gordon Craig innovation: a system of panels and backgrounds that could be rearranged from both sides of the stage).  

And while these mechanical innovations played their part, Coen’s Macbeth also features physical acting — the ultimate stagecraft innovation — in a big way. The Witches are played by veteran British theatre actor Kathryn Hunter, who has played King Lear and Puck, and a host of other Shakespearean characters in performances where she pushes her body to the limit. Her contortionism (see this YouTube preview of her playing Puck, where she says, with a laugh, “I’m quite bendy”) takes The Witches to the next level. 

Draped in black from head to toe (the framing is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), the prophet-in-triplicate moves across a barren landscape using all of her limbs, like an arachnid on speed. It’s remarkable what this scene has achieved with minimal VFX (although when they do use VFX, it is stunning as well; that image of Hunter standing above a pool of water while her reflection shows the other two Witches). And the Witches’ return is every bit as spectacular. Indian fans may recognise Hunter only through the one-minute role she had in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (she played Harry’s neighbour Arabella Figg), but The Tragedy of Macbeth will make them sit up and take notice.

 

It is fair to say that Macbeth adaptations are not going anywhere in a hurry. Every artist worth their salt finds something unique and personal in these texts, and that ‘customisation’ is apparent in their adaptations. The Tragedy of Macbeth might be the latest powerhouse in this context, but it will not be the last one certainly. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth is streaming on Apple TV+.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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