1. Macbeth and Co.
Filmmakers from the beginning have made scripts of Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth has been a prime target. In the silent-film era, there were eight movies made of what superstitious thespians call the Scottish Play. The most intriguing has been lost, a production of 1916 by D. W. Griffith. It starred the eminent Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree. A sliver of gossip about the filming has survived. Sir Herbert didn’t believe in silence or the silents. While the actors did their dumb show around him he insisted on reciting the whole role as he had done for years on stage. The director and cinematographer couldn’t shut him up. Not a word of his could be used and they were wasting expensive film. Their solution was to let him thunder while they appeased him by turning the crank of an empty camera. In the end product, words would be limited as usual to skeletal inter-titles.
Shakespeare’s text—the poetry—has always flummoxed filmmakers. British and American piety forbade leaving it out. After all it was why the writer, dead in 1616, was still a household name. Words, however, obstruct the movement of images that make for good movies. Moreover, the theatrical language of Shakespeare calls for a kind of storytelling that goes back to ancient Greek theatre. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus recounts in his own words how he killed the old man who unbeknown to him was his father. The event isn’t mimed on a stage dripping with tomato ketchup. The action uncoils from the words uttered by Oedipus. Likewise, a millennium later in Hamlet, Gertrude relates the death of Ophelia in the poet’s words. How does cinema deal with this peak moment of poetry? In Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet of 1948, while Gertrude paints her word picture, we watch an inserted scene of Ophelia sinking with grace beneath the rushing water of a stream. Unless we are deaf, this is redundant and not a solution.
Illustration is a lame way out. What can be shown that isn’t a distraction when Hamlet soliloquises, “To be or not to be” or Macbeth, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”? Another attempt at a solution is to let the actor stand in silence emoting, much or little, with his face while he says the lines in voiceover. Still another is the explanatory vignette or brief flashback, perhaps the laziest form of current cinema narration. The truth is that, if the nature of verbal poetry and of cinema are both respected, there can be no solution.
Since Olivier’s Hamlet less fidelity has become acceptable in Shakespeare films. Olivier didn’t tamper with the words but trimmed the whole of what he thought inessential. Orson Welles also respected the language in his Macbeth of 1948. While making cuts he added not very important twists of his own. In subsequent years there were notable foreign language versions of the plays by cineasts who could ignore the problem of the Bard’s verbal poetry. Such is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) adapted from Macbeth and Ran (1985) from King Lear.
A notable off-shoot is an assortment of movies in English that take one of Shakespeare’s stories and change the period completely in a rarely meaningful tour de force. Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet 2000 doesn’t go wrong by its updating of detail, the introduction of surveillance bugs, Polaroid cameras, and pistols replacing rapiers. However, making Claudius the head CEO of an international corporation fails to give him the supernatural status of a king standing in for God on earth. Kurosawa, setting his films in feudal Japan, avoids the pitfall that all of us have today. We can not imagine what being an anointed king meant in the sixteenth century. Almereyda kept to Shakespeare’s words but there are a slew of other movies that work his themes, sometimes in song, without using any of his words. They not only avoid problems concerning his poetry but seem not to know of its existence. See, among dozens, Kiss Me Kate (1953, from The Taming of the Shrew) Forbidden Planet (1956, from The Tempest), West Side Story (1961, from Romeo and Juliet).
2. Macbeth, the Perfect Story
Filmmakers have hitched rides on the back of Macbeth because of its superb bone structure. After “Something wicked this way comes”, a witch’s introduction that promises sure pleasure, we enter a race to tragedy that never falters. Beginning with the mopping up of one war’s blood and a capital execution, suspect supernatural crumbs are scattered to unsteady Macbeth’s and our nerves, a prophecy from devious prophets. Ambition rises like an ogre to shadow the protagonist to his ruin. Enter the evil female everyone loves to hate, bringing sex into the plotting of murder. The temptress overcomes her mate’s hesitation, which proves only strong enough to let us feel he is less guilty than she. The drama of conscience around the crime gives the story more depth than a genre-noir. The assassins argue the morality of killing a symbol of heavenly power beneath the moon.
Immediately after the king’s murder, comes a dilatory scene, full of sour laughs, of a porter going to open the castle door. It’s the scene users of the Macbeth story prefer to cut. They should realise that a breathing space here lets the seriousness of the crime sink in as well as heightens suspense just before its discovery. The speed of the race increases as the doomed male accelerates his downhill slide. We shall soon be able to add our yum-yum, to his regrets of having “supped full of horrors”. Slaughter of the innocents ensues—nothing so pathetic as the death of children—and leads to a gem of pathos when their father, guiltily in foreign parts, must digest his loss. Never fear, he will get revenge and become a hero in what is a happy ending. The misled chief villain goes down spouting nihilism. His steely wife has dissolved into a madness of guilt and despair. She is beautiful but hateful like a classic Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, and the man she has led astray proves impressively macho but too suggestible, undone by riddles and supernatural teases.
3. Joel Coen’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth
The busy tradition of movie remakes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth continues. The play is dressed up regularly in new cinematic clothes in a bow to high culture. It may be time to give Macbeth a rest before it becomes a sedative we use to put ourselves to sleep. Joel Coen’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth points to where we are now in the business and that’s a long way from the eight Macbeths filmed in the silent film era, a long way, too, from Orson Welles’s 1948 bursting-with-life version. He shot his Macbeth in 23 days on Republic Pictures' leftover western sets. He even used some rented western costumes. His skimpy budget was less than a million dollars. One goggles to think how much money Apple gave Joel Coen to spend. He shot over a period of 6 months.
Joel Coen introduces us to Mr and Mrs Mac, who could be an elderly, somewhat weary suburban couple, fallen out of love a lifetime ago, who decide to dabble in crime to eke out their civil service pensions. That is to say, Denzel Washington and Frances McNormand are miscast in the major roles. At this date in their careers neither has much fire aglow in their loins. The murder plot hatched by Lady M on her husband’s ambition is sealed by sex. Shakespeare says it in so many words. The Lady tells her partner that he will fall short as a lover if he has second thoughts about murdering the king. Hollywood that gave us Bonny and Clyde, the diabolical Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and the so steamy Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice gives us here a placid retiree distracted from her knitting.
Frances McNormand isn’t allowed to represent unalloyed evil as the play demands. Shakespeare’s intention is to present—misogyny be hanged—a femme fatale whose crime leads her to personal disintegration and despair, all passion spent. But we haven’t seen any passion. Denzel Washington's grandfather figure seems bent on a quiet life. He’s not a heavy drinker and his wife gives him a sleeping draught at bedtime to assure a placid night. How not to recall Orson Welles in a drunken fever, awash with the guilty sweat as he staggered to the banquet table to stare down Banquo’s ghost? He was in a state to see visions. Denzel Washington’s sobriety makes Joel Coen embarrassed to grant us more than a split second of Banquo’s figure and that obscured by the ponderous symbol of a noisy flight of crows. Just then Macbeth is rushing toward madness. His plight is more understandable if drink and nerve ravaged as Orson Welles had portrayed him. Denzel Washington’s cool manner makes the loss of reason less credible.
In fact, Denzel Washington’s self-possession typifies Joel Coen’s Macbeth. It’s all whispers. Rhetorical lines are not rendered rhetorically. He may have been so bent on making the theatre cinematic that he forgot, in Jean Cocteau’s phrase, to make the cinema theatrical. Is the explanation that he feared the eye-popping acting of the past? That he intended to play down the play’s stage origin? Was Joel Coen thinking that his film would be seen mainly on small screens in tranquil living rooms? Or was it that his were movie actors with technique little touched by stage work, doing a story made for the stage? The best Shakespeare films, Laurence Olivier’s, Orson Welles’, or the Russian Grigori Kozintsev’s, were all made by directors that began with stage work, coming only afterward to the cinema. Some of Joel Coen’s team make us feel that in their effort to enunciate the archaic text correctly they stop acting and simply read aloud.
The Tragedy of Macbeth not only refuses to make Lady Macbeth a figure of evil who reassures our righteousness by meeting her comeuppance. It makes Macbeth a level-headed cost accountant led astray by, presumably female, witches. Joel Coen wants to increase the portion of decency in the story. This is ironic, for in a Hollywood movie-maker’s way the duels and other scenes of blood-letting are done with exquisite care that is worthy of the Coen Brothers in whose film Fargo, back in 1996, Frances McNormand had to watch a body being fed into a wood chipper.
Unlike most Macbeth films which often set the action among Celts in animal skins, this one chooses a chilly decor of elegant, neo-classic architecture that recalls Mussolini’s EUR district of Rome. There are arresting visual touches in its 105 minutes of black and white elegance. Filmed entirely on Los Angeles sound stages the camera does occasionally fix on vast skies but nature isn’t present in a sweeping way seen in previous Macbeths.
What next for the Elizabethan stalwart after Joel Coen’s soporific grope for seriousness? Why not something in the line of Barbara Garson’s MacBird of 1966 that had Lyndon Johnson, as MacBird,(“Hail vice-president thou art.”) with Ladybird Johnson—you guessed it—as a venom spitting Lady MacBird?