The Tragedy of Macbeth (TV+)

I’m not going to emperor’s new clothes this one, but are we really sure Frances McDormand was “born to play” Lady Macbeth, as claimed in The Guardian? The Guardian tend to be wrong about a lot of things, and I’m still reeling from Kermode’s FIVE STAR review of The Green Knight – which was so appallingly bad (and boring!) that I just can’t even.

We’ve had people playing Macbeth before who were too old for the part. You can just about forgive the presence of the 70-year-old Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold’s 2010 production because it was set in a kind of Stalinist 1930s and they were using machine guns. But a 66-year-old Denzel Washington wielding a broad sword? Really?

Anyway, I’m not here to carp about the advanced age of the participants. 60 is the new 40 and all that. But I do have an issue with some aspects of this film, particularly in the way these American actors deliver their lines.

Roman Polanski is the only director who has made what I consider a proper film version of Macbeth. Which is not to say that I like his version much. I could do without Cheggers in it, and the naked child and the cellarful of naked witches. As I always say, Playboy (who financed the film) needed to get their money’s worth. But at least Polanski used proper locations: landscapes and castles and banqueting halls which opened up the play and made it more cinematic. While the more recent Kurzel version did have some cinematic elements, they were stingy about the castles, and a lot of the film seems to take place on a campsite near Scarborough.

This Joel Coen version has some cinematic aspects too, though the references are not to the scope of the widescreen era but to the more cabined and confined expressionistic films of the black and white 4:3 days, like the Welles version (or Welles’ version of The Trial). We’ve got stark interiors, sharp shadows, lots of fog and ravens — but also too many long corridors and cloisters. It’s very stylish and there are some great visual tricks and ideas. Don’t read on if you don’t want to know about them.

For example, the one witch who becomes three with two reflections; or the dagger that turns into a door handle; or the leaves from Birnham Wood that blow into the open doors and windows.

But while the film is visually stylish, it’s the performances that fall a bit flat for me. Alex Hassell’s Ross is nicely ambiguous, but ends up being a stronger presence than Corey Hawkins’ Macduff, who is supposed to be Nemesis after all. The two leads have a presence on the screen but their attempts to deliver Shakespeare’s lines in a ‘modern’, ordinary way fall flat, robbing the poetry of its meanings. Washington in particular delivers all his soliloquies at the same rushed pace, without pause or emphasis, and the meanings fall away. And I didn’t detect any heat between husband and wife: there’s no chemistry at all.

Just on a practical level, if I wanted to teach students how a caesura in the middle of a line might lead to an extended pause in a performance, I’m not going to turn to this film.

This is why I always turn to Patrick Stewart when I’m looking for the best film version. I know that some of my colleagues consider him a lightweight, but I love watching him listing dogs and making a sandwich while the murderers look on nervously. I can’t see Denzel Washington reeling off a long speech, with suitable emphasis, whilst making and eating a sarnie, I just cannot.

Anyway since you didn’t ask, here’s my take on the Macbeths I sometimes show in class:

  • Kurosawa: Throne of Blood – love the banquet/Banquo scene in this, though of course the original language is missing.
  • Polanski: it’s all a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it is a proper film
  • Sher at the Roundhouse: looks cheap
  • Judy Dench and Ian McKellen: hasn’t aged well
  • Kurzel/Fassbinder: everyone mumbles and they all look the same
  • Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood: I think she does Lady Macbeth better although the problem with the part is, she’s hardly in the play really so actors tend to try to make more of it than there is. Stewart’s sandwich making is second to none.
  • Orson Welles: hasn’t aged well
  • Coen/Washington/McDormand: probably good for people who faint at the sight of blood because it’s in black and white, and they’ve bumped up Lady Macbeth’s part by stealing a scene from Lennox.
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