Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable
Denzel Washington is one of only three actors that I have heard do Shakespeare with an American accent and have it not sound strange to my ear (the other two are Charlton Heston and Billy Cryrstal). So when I saw a trailer for The Tragedy of Macbeth, I was very intrigued.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Macbeth (Washington) is given a prophecy that he will become king of Scotland. He tells his wife Lady MacBeth (Francis McDormand) who begins to plot when the current king, Duncan (Brendan Gleeson) comes to stay at their home. What follows is a tale of bloody ambition that descends into murder and madness.
This version is directed by Joel Coen, half of the famous Coen Brothers duo. I am not a gigantic fan of their work, but I recognize their talent. I think the first 3/4 of No Country For Old Men is absolute genius. Here, Coen decides to take this very old story and try to film it in a bold new way. By "new" I mean something that feels like it comes from the German expressionist movement of the 1930's with its use of long shadows and sharp contrast in black and white. Even the aspect ratio is squared off to match the old style. If I was a deeper student of film history, I would probably be able to appreciate all of the subtle nods to films from the past.
But even without understanding the cinematic heritage here, the effect is fantastic. Coen films this movie like a waking nightmare. It seems like everything was filmed on a sound stage, which reminded me of the very claustrophobic feel of Bram Stoker's Dracula, where Francis Ford Coppola did the same thing. The artificiality of the environment adds to the dream-like quality. There is a madness at play. You can see this with the opening scene where the 3 Witches are played by a single woman (Kathryn Hunter) who is in conversation with herself). Every scene draws Macbeth deeper into his darkness and madness. Coen is able to perfectly marry the visuals to the tonal descent of the narrative.
Washington is fantastic. It is hard to talk about this actor without sounding hyperbolic. But Washington plays this part with an ease that makes his slow moral slide feel like a gravitational pull. He brings his natural charisma to his early scenes, which is very helpful. I've seen versions of the play where the actor already begins with giving MacBeth a hard edge. But this makes it difficult to see why those like Duncan trust him so implicitly. Washington plays MacBeth as a good and honorable man. But the germ of ambition corrodes his soul. Even though you know how the story ends, you yearn for him to turn back.
What I particularly thought was fascinating about his performance is the definitive sense of ennui that comes to define his character. I've seen actors fill MacBeth with rage as his world comes closing in or have him devolve into a mania. But as the walls come closing in, Washington's MacBeth ascends his throne with a dismissive contempt. His body language as he sits expresses an empty disgust, but not so much at his enemies but at his throne and his own life. He continues to fight, but with an empty-heartedness that speaks to the characters ultimate embrace of nihilism. In this way, it is such a wonderfully moral movie because it shows what life without morality looks like.
I am going to have to add McDormand to my list of actors who can do Shakespeare well in an American accent. When she says that she would be capable of brutally murdering a nursing baby, there is nothing false about her delivery. Her hard features and tone serve to constantly emasculate MacBeth into submission. Even her descent into madness shows that there is something untouchable about her. Her last line on screen has her staring directly and knowingly at her audience and it is shocking.
The rest of the cast does their job well. While the world is black-and-white, the characters are mostly darker shades of gray. Coen portrays Ross (Alex Hassell) with a lot more manipulative malevolence. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) seems less corrupted by his prophecy that his son would one day be king, but there is still a hard edge to him. Gleeson's Duncan is much more powerful and vital than most productions I have seen. He is a powerful and intimidating figure. You can understand that there would be a natural fear in attempting to harm him.
Coen puts together a tale that has been told thousands of times and gives it a flavor that makes it visually powerful. It is a mesmerizing, though unpleasant, spell that will draw you in until the last shot.