Director Joel Coen works for the first time alone on ‘Macbeth’ (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 2021), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play with a fantastic lens and an almost surreal approach, drawing inspiration from other adaptations of the work while creating his own version that bears his mark in each frame, connecting with his traditional vision of characters doomed to perdition that his filmography has shown.
Perhaps that is why Coen’s return to black and white has to do with the noir sensibility of the story: dark plans, betrayals and the decisions that lead to calamity that have marked the destinies of their characters since their first film and that this time evokes, not by chance, the conscious chiaroscuro of ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ (The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001) just when they are fulfilled 20 years after its premiere, in which Frances McDormand already appeared.
Terror in Macbeth Adaptations
‘MacBeth’ has seen many film versions, one of them recent and with an expansive production that correctly transferred the work to the current market panorama, for this reason it is striking that only five years later Apple and A24 re-represent the text. It is a work that has notably been translated into film, starting with the version of Orson Welles in 1948, who used a series B budget to turn it into a practically expressionist gothic horror noir. Simple and theatrical sets, which conveyed the same kind of sensibility as works like ‘Haxan‘(1922) or the’Splendor‘(1926) by Murnau.
Welles himself defined it as “a perfect cross between ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein'” and, indeed, its glorious use of light and atmosphere was reminiscent of the first films of the Universal still marked by the forms of the old continent. Akira Kurosawa translated ‘MacBeth’ into a tale of ghosts and samurai influenced by the Kaidan Eiga on his ‘Throne of Blood’ (Kumonosu-jô, 1957). And then came Polanski with his relentless’ 70s take that acknowledged the piece’s potential for terror, revealed as much in its depiction of murky and misty places as in its shocking, bloody, graphic violence.
The truth is that these versions are more than an unofficial contribution within the genre, but fit properly in the nature of Shakespeare’s original. In fact, the text is considered one of the points of literary origin of the representation of the British landscape by how it connects the mystery of the woods and superstition. The wastelands as cradles of the unknown and a supernatural evil that influences human actions that may not really exist is what we lately associate with the famous folk horror label.
A theatrical gothic with the A24 brand
Often times, when it comes to Shakespeare in the cinema, there is a tendency to deal with a solemn and important angle where the details of the horror do not seem to fit, however, the unleashed violence and the impact have more to do with how the populist confirmed Shakespeare wanted his work to work among the public. Thus, Joel Coen decides to impregnate himself with part of the prestige that surrounds the mere mention of the author but without ceasing to connect with Welles’s adaptation in a theatrical display of dark chiaroscuro with echoes of the vision of the works of Poe de la Universal in the 1930s.
All aspects of production work in unison at the same time combine stage sensibility and vision for the great to execute a minimalist vision of the Scottish play. There is reflected lighting through Stefan Dechant’s elaborate production design reminiscent of the architectures of ‘Satan‘(The Black Cat, 1934). The constant play of chiaroscuro of lights and shadows, is combined with matte paintings manifestos of an immobile sky, and there are constructions that make the characters participate in a tableau vivant in anachronistic settings and even deliberately Gothic constructions reminiscent of ‘Abbey in the oak grove’ (1809) by Caspar David Friedrich.
These aspects are reinforced by the crazy camera angles and the narrow square framing of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, which are not uncommon these days when films like ‘The Green Knight’ (The Green Knight, 2021) they use the same option. Have some points in common is ‘MacBeth’ with the work of David Lowery, in his artistic approach to period cinema, but here there is not so much frontal and pictorial plane as a true theatrical intention reminiscent of those first translations of famous works on Broadway to the cinema. It also fits in with A24’s signature approaches to the genre and its portrayal of witches is pure avant-garde horror trademark.
Almost an Edgar Allan Poe anthology
The witches connect with the wind blowing through the chimneys, which awaken the insidious evil within Macbeth like a latent virus, until he is consumed by his own ambition, and here they are. represented as human crows, a strange old woman with triplicate bird movements that appears in animal form as an omen, adding to the combo of imagery worthy of Edgar Allan Poe adaptation: there are elements of ‘The Raven’, of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and the final appearances of Frances McDormand not far from a ‘Morella’ or Lady Madeline of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher ‘.
‘Macbeth’ has great performances, beginning with a great Denzel Washington, in his third Shakespeare. Some will soon complain about the actor’s skin color and his suitability to the character, so they can also go and put their claim sheet on the 1948 theatrical version of Orson Welles, which in the era of segregation, was carried out exclusively by African Americans . Frances McDormand and Brendan Gleeson also stand out, giving nuances to the commitment to literalness in the verse, functioning as an experimental chamber piece, almost like a BBC television version in the 60-70s of a Beckett work.
With more emphasis on Shakespeare’s original text and oxygen for the actors, the 2021 ‘Macbeth’ it does not reach the nightmarish power of Welles or Polanski, but it communes in tone with the version of Kurosawa, which it resembles in its final section, perhaps something lacking in momentum to close the set with the high level with which it works during almost all the footage. Much more interesting than the vision of Justin Kurzel, it represents a new vertex in the career of Joel Coen, who for now has replaced the absence in the script of his brother playing safe with the help of a guest pen that can hardly fail.