Boiling Shakespeare’s game down to its most elementary parts, Joel Cohen Macbeth’s tragedy is an exercise in sumptuous, purposeful minimalism performed from a place of experience and taste. With an atmosphere of efficiency that gives a sense of opacity (as is common in many collaborations with his brother Ethan, who is absent here), the project does not have many obvious markers of the personal, although it does have his wife in the lead role (Frances McDormand, ending a refreshingly good year). But with its themes of fate, ironically measured retaliation, pride and junk, questionable ambitions, it resonates across his joint work and nonetheless.
Much of what Coen is about here seems to be an exercise in cooking with film photographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, The French broadcast) and production designer Stefan Dechant to provide Tragedy a polished, intensely conscious gaze. By centering his compositions symmetrically as in his signature work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Delbonnel’s subject matter here is far less sweet, focusing on barely furnished castle halls and chambers facing outland sheds that appear to float on seas of grass. and fog. By channeling Orson Welles’ tighter, slimmer and, as a matter of both vision and necessity, more suggestive black-and-white adaptation, Coen’s aesthetics here feel sharp, orderly and compressed, with no trace of ruffles and avoiding the hubris of its cast in its direction. But in this largely familiar suspension, a lot of nonsense has still been made: a (?) Character (played with a ruthless sense of invention by Kathryn Hunter) seems to take the place of three witches (it’s complicated), rolling soundstage sets creates a barren landscape whose contours change with the minds of the inhabitants, and a procession of splendid achievements and clever flourishing casting gives a motley sense of ingenuity. Overall, there is a diffuse air of haze, dream-like subjectivity or surreality that complicates the tidy air of production.
The top among them – unlike most Macbeth re-stagings in which Lady steals the show – is Denzel Washington’s rendition of the title character, with which he seizes control of the film with less apparent effort or pain than his character occupies the throne. By delivering his lines in the precise verse of the source text, he manages to give them a direct, freely modern quality that makes them even more seductive. Prone to a kind of complacent, low-boiling vanity more than any roaring, extroverted kind of ambition, Washington’s Macbeth plays out violence with an air of largely subdued lament over his Lady. Outbursts in court people, finely rhythmic monologues and manic, late visions (or encounters?) Provide a range of surfaces that he can break with as an actor. But Washington, though he is here, is inevitably himself: sometimes distracting, but always beautiful. Coen’s aesthetic work here on one level or another seems to simply make room for him, as the text feels more true to belong (if not too loudly or as a matter of cumbersome force) to Washington above all but Shakespeare himself.
However, Washington’s ability to take over the film so easily speaks almost as much to his own skill and presence as to the film’s erosion of obstacles or distractions that may be fighting him for the limelight. To Tragedy is relentlessly direct (though to be fair, the play – for me at least – has always seemed like one of Shakespeare’s juiciest, most ordinary, and least ornate). Coen and Delbonnel frame dialogue scenes in sharp shot-inverted shot sequences before well-shaded walls with high-angle architectural images cut in. The latter work may feel a bit like spices for the former: a measured distribution of some necessary variation rather than personal expression through form. But if what Cohen is doing is at once using a finely crafted, albeit a bit messy style as a means of getting out of the way, there are many worse ways to do it – and it stands to flatter the elementary text qualities as well as the film’s troupe of talented artists.
As a companion to Washington here, McDormand’s work encounters a contrast. She performs in both more extensive and more overtly cool modes and operates in a more familiar theatrical fashion. By delivering Shakespeare’s remarks with a clearer sense of well-being, her fast-flowing consonants fall with an air of sharp, informed decisions, leaving room for a rushing stream of emotional (and rhetorical) tones in her private moments of intimacy and compulsion. To the film’s small audience on screen, she sizzles with a barely veiled readiness to strike, offering heartfelt gestures of hospitality with clipped, eager cues that are only met from a restless, almost hectic busy face. Compared to Washington, her lady is more straightforward under her air of insistent compassion. A creature of unusually pure ambition, fleeting dissatisfaction and self-esteem, her guilt at the end of the story (“Out, damn spot,” etc.) comes out on a psychological level as something of a surprise. Washington, on the other hand, seems like a far less reliable instrument for her goals, quietly guarding between her own conflicting doubts, desires, and designs.
Figures like his are what Coens’ work has long been made of. Their penchant for fateful acts of violence, retaliatory and karmic logic, and nerdy pursuers certainly have a home here. But while the events in Tragedy of course go awry, there are not too many clues here beyond Washington and Hunter’s performance of pleasure, of comic irony, or of subversion reaching the screen. Such features, on the other hand, are abundantly present in Coens’ other recent works. take Hi Caesar! or The ballad about Buster Scruggs, who distorted more iteratively of old ways and responsive to cultural and political history than they were concerned with offering something self-styled or forced “written”. Yet these works were nevertheless marked with the stamp of the brothers, being cunningly reclaiming and subversive in their trademark (and more and more opaque to many) polyvalent way. I have little doubt that there are forms of subversion and personalization that I am lacking in Tragedy, but Cohen’s solo effort here still feels more crafty than artistically shaped. The result, though distinctly pleasing and often eye-catching, can feel like something of an exercise, an ingenious instructor and his collaborators presenting a cut and polished version of a beloved gem of a text: something I would register more as a description than as a complaint.
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