Grey Box

Really enjoyed Joel Coen’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH. By some special dispensation it’s called that. Polanski’s film, according to its main title, is also called THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, IIRC, but it’s only ever called MACBETH. So I guess that helps us keep our Scottish usurpers sorted out.

What the Coen film has is a really good look (and sound). It finds a balance between the theatrical and the cinematic, a necessary thing for this sort of subject, I think. It goes further towards theatre than either the Welles or the Kurosawa (I don’t entirely consider THRONE OF BLOOD a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth so much as a version of the story — if you don’t grapple with the dialogue, you’re not actually filming Shakespeare). What really helps it, I think, is the framing, in that round-cornered 1:1.33 box — the way characters talk almost right into the lens when they’re addressing someone out of frame, it makes everything ALMOST a soliloquy. The POV shots travelling very straight towards a geometric vanishing point — the influence of Hitchcock, apparently, though I kept thinking of the terrifying tracking towards the execution posts in Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY.

Performances are strong. Stephen Root can’t quite make the Porter seem other than a mentally-ill intruder from another cinematic universe, like the brawling cowboy’s bursting onto Buddy Bizarre’s musical set in BLAZING SADDLES, but that’s at least partly the playwright’s fault. There’s really outstanding work from Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel, Moses Ingram, Miles Anderson… Kathryn Hunter as all three witches is simply uncanny: an unholy trinity, a three-in-one contortionist Gollum.

I do have quibbles. Could have done with less CGI — the CGI I liked was the stuff I couldn’t be sure was CGI. I think there’s imperfect chemistry between Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Each is separately very good. But I have questions. Why does Macbeth want to be king? I get that his wife wants it, I totally believed that. Washington plays the man’s doubts well, but the excitement that the throne may be destined to his… well, it’s a very laid-back performance, which is refreshing in its way. Though he does sudden shouting, too, which everyone seems to need to do when they act Shakespeare.

Once he is king, the motivation should be easy: he has to kill all his enemies to stay alive, or so he believes. But Macbeth fretting over the fact that Banquo’s son will become king, and not his, would make more sense if there were any prospect of the Macbeths producing an heir of their own. It’s one thing you never question in the Polanski or Welles.

McDormand has to contend with The Missing Scene. Dame Edith Evans claimed Lady Mac was an unplayable role, because she disintegrates so rapidly — the sleepwalking sign is the first sign of weakness, and “she was perfectly fine at supper.” Evans phrase became even funnier to me when I realised that Lady M actually SAYS she’s “perfectly fine.”

Just read a great piece by Daniel A. Amnéus speculating that there’s textual evidence of just such a scene. In brief, he examines the Macbeths’ exchange here —

SHE: Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done is done.

HE: We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it:
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

— and finds they make more sense as a consideration of Banquo’s murder and Fleance’s escape — which haven’t happened yet at this point in the play — than they do as a discussion of Duncan’s assassination. (He suggests that Lady M wouldn’t speak of the regicide as being without remedy, since she still regards it as “her greatest triumph.”

Coen and McDormand come up with a bit of business — Lady Macbeth suddenly starting to lose her hair — to try to foreshadow her sudden disintegration. This strikes me as both too much and not enough. Given the cinema’s ability, and right, and indeed requirement, to invent visual material, I think more could have been done. You can suggest that Lady Macbeth is not as perfectly fine as she claims. (This is quite well handled in the Polanski.)

There are some terrific inventions in this movie — Macbeth’s second visit to the witches is played as a dream — there’s nearly always a dream in a Coen Bros film (they even deleted one from FARGO, and one from THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE involving flying saucers) — and it’s tremendous. I don’t think the spectre at the banquet scene is reimagined as well as it might be. For one thing, inserting the raven, symbol in this film of the weird sisters, seems to imply that Banquo’s ghost is a production of sorcery, rather than Macbeth’s guilty conscience, a blurring of what I take to the play’s meaning. Playing the whole thing at a run, abandoning the banquet table, robs the scene of much of its awful, mortifying social dimension — a dimension that would allow McDormand, playing party hostess, to show more strain. Francesca Annis’ Lady M doesn’t suffer much from missing scene syndrome in the Polanski; Fraces McDormand’s much tougher interpretation of the part has a wider emotional gulf to traverse to get to the sleepwalking scene, and the tuft of shed hair, unconnected to anything else that happens, doesn’t get her there.

But my quibbles aside, I really dug this — I think the semi-theatrical look is achieved even better here than in Olivier (the stripped-down sets of his HAMLET seem like an unacknowledged influence). Because of the camera’s role. And the theatrical look is definitely a better choice than Polanski’s hyperrealism, though his approach does make his film an easy distance from the hallucinatory, a distance crossed when Jon Finch visits the witches for the second time.

Joel without Ethan seems to have moved into a more extreme stylisation, returning to the expressionistic and eclectic manner of his earliest work — this may all be due to the source material he’s tackling, but it’s an interesting direction regardless. And the trademark Coen snark is gone: he’s said he regards the Macbeths as sympathetic characters, asides from being murderers. OK, that very statement may contain some trace of snark. But I think he means it, also.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Malcolm X; Marge Gunderson; Translucent; Jonathan Strange; Stobrod Thewes; Dudley Dursley; Poseidon; Lt. Nystrom; Jolene; Mrs. Arabella Figg;

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Malcolm X; Marge Gunderson; Translucent; Jonathan Strange; Stobrod Thewes; Dudley Dursley; and Mrs. Arabella Figg.

10 Responses to “Grey Box”

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    The bare architectural design, the extreme close-ups and use of angles reminded me as much of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Just me ??.
    I was underwhelmed by DW, sadly, I felt that he underplayed at times when he SHOULD have been ranting… the final threat to the herald bringing news of the approach of Birnam.
    Kathryn Hunter steals the film. Could she sneak a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars ??

  2. Macbeth wants to be King because the Witches tell him that he is already: “Hail Thane of Cawdor!” They are of course tempting him and he falls for the bait, egged on by the Mrs. I advise everyone to seek out “Height” a marvelous film in which Glenn Close plays an actress teaching “Macbeth” to her drama class while preparing to play Lady Macbeth n a stage production. The ambition involved isn’t hers but rather that of her daughter’s fiance who wants to marry a woman and stay a gay man at the same time.

  3. Yeah, I found Washington’s portrayal skilled and interesting, but it didn’t really get the most out of the text. It’s a shame, because I really feel Coen and his team found an almost ideal style for film/theatre blending. And yes, Dreyer seems like a possible influence and certainly a stylistic cousin.

    There’s ONE scene where Washington is excited about the witch’s/witches’ prophecies coming true, and then it’s over and he’s good at showing the character’s hesitations but I never again felt any sense of ambition from him. Rewatched the Polanski, which I always had felt got a lot wrong, but the characters’ motivations were absolutely palpable. Everything in that film is visceral, of course.

  4. Will definitely check this out, thanks, but Blood Simple still looms as the best film the CBs have produced.

  5. I haven’t seen this yet, so cannot comment on the performances, but the visual look, from trailers and stills I have seen, remind me of Peter Brook’s King Lear film (not the TV version).

  6. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Judging solely from the stills, it seems that digital gets in the way — atmosphere (the kind Dreyer could summon on celluloid) ends up looking like an effect in the worst sense, one that operates at cross-purposes with cold digital clarity of edge and surface. But again, I’m just guessing — for all I know, it was shot on film. You do mention CGI though.

  7. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Aggressive hipster irony depresses me. Dunno if this film has that.

  8. This one, like True Grit and a few other Coen joints, is relatively free of the dread Aggressive H.I.

    It’s a digital film and yes, even 16mm would have suited its look nicely. Digital is a little too clean and untextured, but they do pretty well considering: the most textured the actual surfaces, the better.

    The Brook Lear, which I really dislike as a take on the text, does have similarities in terms of visual style, but Coen is a smoother film technician. Brook’s big idea of shooting the backs of people’s heads whenever he didn’t want to add anything to the dialogue always struck me as silly and distracting, a gimmicky solution to a fake problem (if you want to effectively strip away the visual track to make the audience concentrate on words, simply holding a stationary shot for a long time is a much better approach… but when the eye is starved, it doesn’t necessarily engage the ear more, it can have th reverse effect).

  9. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    will definitely watch, thanks!

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