It is as though Denzel Washington wanted his performance as the title character in Joel Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH were conceived and executed as a tribute to the famous sleepwalking scene played by Lady Macbeth. He speaks the lines not trippingly from the tongue, but rather mumbled with little emotional affect, albeit with admirable enunciation. For all the bold art directions, and compelling performances that surround Mr. Washington, he fails to provide the necessary centrality, and to quote another poet, the center cannot hold. Yet the periphery is dazzling.
Joel Coen is astute, but not slavish, in his interpretation of Shakespeare’s play of treachery, regicide and madness. He may have cut my favorite line in all of Shakespeare (What, thou egg!), but pace. He has made the theatrical exercise one of exquisite cinema, with a black-and-white art design that evokes the best of German Expressionism without resorting to clichés of any sort. His edits to the text take nothing away from the narrative, while his choices about the supernatural elements of the story are otherworldly in a stark and eerie fashion that will make modern audiences cringe at the black arts as Shakespeare intended. Kathryn Hunter as all three witches twists unnaturally as she laser locks her eyes on both Macbeth and the audience, eyes that are beyond human emotion, brimming instead with occult wisdom not entirely beyond toying with the frail creatures she entices with prophecies that are designed to bring out the worst in the listener.
If the purpose of cinema is to show, not tell, (N.B. it is), then THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH succeeds with aplomb. Having Macbeth entice two cutthroats to the murder of his best friend Banquo as he steps out of the strong sunlight into shadow, rendering him a silhouette works on so many levels, visual and psychological, that it is breathtaking in both its simplicity and its impact. The film is rife with such moments, coming, ahem, thick and fast but by never quite repeating a trope, losing that impact.
Coen’s visuals are never at the expense, though, of the words themselves. If the stars shining in the inky black sky are stylized, they take on the fire of their description better than a mere simulacrum. He then adds a sound design in which the knock of doom is in everything. Raindrops falling into water as well as the drips of blood from a slaughtered king’s dead hand. Both portend what is to come, even as the clearly delineated light and shadow give no quarter to extenuating circumstances of an instant’s poor judgement.
And then there is Mr. Washington, saying the lines as though he were in a table reading and one in which he is fighting the cadences of Shakespeare’s poetry. Fortunately, none of the other thespians make that mistake. From Frances McDormand’s slow-simmering ambition that boils over into Lay Macbeth’s madness, to Coen regular Stephen Root’s comic turn as the gatekeeper ironically pretending his master is Satan not Macbeth, not knowing what mayhem his master has committed, the performances are pitch perfect and engrossing as Washington renders himself somnambulant, even when shouting. Of particular note is Alex Hassell as Ross, the bearer of bad news and sudden justice throughout, whose quiet presence emanates an unsettling ambiguity even when completely silent and still.
This is brilliance enough in THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH to compensate for the jarring discordance of Mr. Washington’s interpretation. Eschewing the artifice of reality, Coen creates an experience that is Cathartic as well as horrifying, akin to the medieval morality plays or even the tragedies of classical Greece. It is flawed, but it Is magnificent.