Joel Coen’s adaptation is a dreamlike, stunningly performed rendition of Shakespeare’s play.
The Tragedy of Macbeth begins, appropriately, in pitch darkness. A black screen opens the film as we hear the single voice of the witches, all three played by the uncanny Kathryn Hunter. She delivers the play’s opening lines with a raspy voice that verges on a croak, “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” And just like that, we are inside the dream.
As she announces that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” we cut to white, a whiteness that soon reveals itself to be a thick fog with three crows circling overhead, perhaps the witches in another form. The sound of a stage spotlight turning on places us inside the theater.
Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, shot in black and white and starring Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, is a triumphant version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. In this eerie adaptation—Coen’s first directorial foray without his brother—the tale of a man overcome with ambition who commits regicide to usurp the throne acquires the immediacy of a nightmare you are keen to forget come morning.
Its dreamlike quality stems partly from the fact that it was almost entirely filmed on soundstages, leaving not a single shadow to chance. By offering such a carefully drawn reality, the film subtly points to its own artifice, rendering it both meta-cinematic and metatheatrical. Characters occasionally look straight to the camera as they deliver their lines while the set design and cinematography evoke classic films like Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Night of the Hunter.
Looking back at past Shakespeare adaptations, we find precedent for films that center theatricality. Perhaps most famously, Laurence Olivier’s classic 1944 adaptation of Henry V, which begins at the Globe Theatre. Throughout the 130-minute run of Olivier’s Henry V, we never fully leave the world of the theatrical. Props and sets do not attempt verisimilitude but, instead, call attention to their status as props and sets. The point is not to get lost in the world of the film but to always remember that you have entered a different realm. And yet, Olivier’s film, shot in Technicolor—a technology coterminous with the Golden Age of Hollywood—is also joyously cinematic, happy to offer us a level of color saturation the theater could never muster.
The Tragedy of Macbeth casts a similar spell. The film does not attempt realism; instead its characters are always slightly detached from the settings they occupy. Inverness—Macbeth’s castle—is a collection of near-empty, enormous rooms whose scale constantly dwarfs the human figures it contains. The castle’s architecture, inspired by Casa Luis Barragán in Mexico City, is all stark geometric figures, clean lines, and tall windows. Inside it, there is very little by way of furniture, suggesting the sparseness of the half-forgotten or the half-imagined.
In terms of its cinematic references, all the films that serve as inspiration feature characters whose surroundings are shaped by their interiority: they are themselves the forest they walk through. In F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a man plots to kill his wife, but it is that film’s relationship to space more than the presence of a sinister central fact that The Tragedy of Macbeth borrows from. As the husband and would-be-murdered wife stroll down a city street, the city becomes a meadow, one backdrop quickly becoming another one, with a speed that denotes the cadence of the mind more than the pace of the physical world.
In Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1929 The Passion of Joan of Arc, Joan of Arc’s anguish turns the interrogation room into a terrifying place. In what is perhaps cinema’s most accomplished ode to faces, each face in close-up becomes a landscape and the viewing experience is entirely colored by foreknowledge of the tragic ending. When Denzel’s face fills the screen, his every emotion a plot point, Dreyer’s influence is palpable.
And, finally, Charles Laughton’s 1955 thriller The Night of the Hunter, about a serial killer in pursuit of two children who know where a thick wad of cash is hidden, provides a model for unrelenting tension. Like The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Night of the Hunter uses two-dimensional paintings by way of backgrounds, revealing the world of the movie to be more an evocation of a place in the soul than a recreation of an earthly spot.
It is fitting that a play so invested in light and dark should be shot in black and white. The night Macbeth murders King Duncan—the point of no return—Ross, a nobleman, runs into an old man. They discuss the unnaturalness of the time they are living through: “I have seen / Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night / Hath trifled former knowings.” It is as though the regicide disorganizes the universe: the old man describes seeing a mousing owl killing a hawk and Duncan’s horses eating each other. Even the coming of light seems to have fallen prey to disarray. As Ross explains, “by the clock, ‘tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.”
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel orchestrated it such that in The Tragedy of Macbeth the viewer is never quite sure whether it is day or night. The source of light, whether the moon or the sun, is left purposefully indeterminate, contributing to the sense that the characters are entirely unmoored, unable to rely even on the certainty of day following night.
The old man in the encounter is played by none other than Kathryn Hunter, the actress who also plays all three of the Weird Sisters. In a movie full of near-immaculate performances—Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is an effortless display of calculated ruthlessness—Hunter stands out. We first encounter her as a dark object on the ground, the camera taking a bird’s eye view and approaching her slowly. She is face down, her knees tucked in, her arms gathered under her. Eventually, the camera finds her face, all big brown eyes and dry lips, and closes in. Breaking the fourth wall she asks, “Where hast thou been, sister?” Answering her own question, she responds, “Killing swine.” It is like she is possessed, all three sisters inhabiting her little body and coming out in turns.
Hunter explains that she took inspiration from crows and standing stones, her witch(es) akin to objects that have occupied the landscape for thousands of years and have therefore witnessed everything. However frail she seems, her arms and legs thin and spindly, she is not quite human. She produces right angles with her limbs, which she moves joltingly as she curses Macbeth. “Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid,” she proclaims in a voice quickly degrading into birdcall. Later, she will perch on a beam, her form twice echoed.
No matter how many times one revisits the story, it is always surprising how quickly Macbeth turns from loyal servant to regicide. All it takes is the suggestion that it is meant to be, that in some sense it has already happened, for him to jump into action and do the unthinkable. “Peace! the charm’s wound up,” the witches announce, and sure enough, it is.
Denzel Washington, one of the most captivating leading men of his (and perhaps any) generation, plays Macbeth with a singular stillness. Washington is nearing 70 and there is something profoundly compelling about seeing such a familiar face, and such a beautiful one at that, now slightly aged. If there is one way in which he might be miscast it is that his natural regality undercuts the idea of Macbeth as usurper. Denzel Washington looks good in a crown.
The Tragedy of Macbeth tells the story of an event that makes the world go topsy turvy. For order to be restored, Macbeth must die. And Macbeth himself—at least as Washington plays him—seems to know this. His persistent sorrow is that of a man slightly above the plot, saddened by the role he has been cast in and yet powerless to escape it. Even more, committed to playing his part well. When Macbeth is informed that Lady Macbeth has died, he does not express grief; instead, he delivers what has become his most famous speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” For a moment, he can see it all.
Macduff, young, vengeful, and brimming with vim and vigor, will soon arrive to deliver Macbeth’s comeuppance. Macbeth’s crown will fall to the ground, and he will lose his head before he can put it back on. After that it is the tying of loose ends: the restoration of order, and a murder of crows flying away, as if in search of a new tragedy. The sound of stage lights being turned off announces we have made it through the night.
Given the many superstitions surrounding the play—actors famously refrain from uttering Macbeth’s name in a theater—Kathryn Hunter herself cast a protective spell at the beginning of filming. When COVID temporarily suspended production, she feared the incantation might have failed. The Tragedy of Macbeth proves it worked only too well.