Joel Coen, of Coen brothers renown, has filmed an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play – his first on his own. The movie had a limited run before moving to Apple TV+. Recorded in stark black and white with an almost square aspect ratio, it is an effective evocation of the great play. Interestingly, the version used closely mirrors Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s opera Macbeth, though the Porter doesn’t make it into the opera.
The sets are simple to the point of invisibility, but as abstract as they are they work. The costumes are similarly spare, but also effective. Verdi had three choruses of witches, Coen has one actress play all three. The film is a successful rendering of the great play though shortened of necessity to suit the short attention span that’s now prevalent. The acting is mostly very good. There are only two problems – Macbeth and his Lady. They’re both way too old for their parts – at least 30 years beyond their expiration date.
The age issue is important. Lady Macbeth says she’s had at least one child which presumably has died. Macbeth speaks of her having sons in the future. But they’re clearly too old to have more children. So why worry about posterity and Banquo being the father of kings to come? It essential to the dramaturgy that the Macbeths be young and capable of producing heirs.
Denzel Washington has Macbeth down, but his voice is not what is was; it’s gravely and old. The resonance needed for the great speeches and outbursts is not there. His performance is like a fine score played on a worn instrument. He should have done Lear rather than the Scottish king.
Frances McDormand doesn’t get either the volcanic malice of Lady Macbeth nor does she realize the pathos of her mental collapse near the story’s end. She’s adequate, but no more. The relationship between the husband and wife seems bland rather than generating the frisson that should cloak their interactions.
Brendan Gleeson is touching and evocative as King Duncan, though it seems odd to hear an Irish accent coming from a King of Scotland. His murder is shown in grizzly detail putting an exclamation point on the previously noble Macbeth’s rapid surrender to the allure of power.
Kathryn Hunter does a plastic man impersonation as the witches; her contortions make the hags more ominous, even if you must have the closed captions on to tell which of the three is speaking. She also plays an old man so convincingly that you don’t associate the character with the witches despite all being portrayed by the same person.
Alex Hassel is ominous and ambiguous as Ross. He let’s Fleance live despite being charged by Macbeth with his murder. He makes a lot out of a relatively small part. Bertie Carvel as Banquo has the declamatory tools that Washington now lacks. Stephen Root as the Porter does a great take with his famous speech about the effects of alcohol on performance. A bravura turn.
Back to Coen’s vision of the play. It’s all fog and wind. Stange designs, shapes, and high contrast unreality that add portent to the film. The bare settings and quick dissolves mostly work. The banquet scene where Macbeth is unmanned by Banquo’s ghost doesn’t gain purchase. It’s over too soon and Macbeth’s delirium seems feigned. Nevertheless, the film is gripping and is a good addition to the many previous movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s tale of the corrupting effects of the lust for power. A special mention is Carter Burwell’s score. Without being intrusive, it defines the action, is always apposite, and greatly adds to the mood of oppression and evil desire. If you have access to Apple TV+ this adaptation of a play that’s been around for more than four centuries is definitely worth your time. Coen has his own vision of the piece that he adheres to with dispatch.