On the opening day of The New York Film Festival, the Walter Reade Theatre was packed for the press screening and press conference for Joel Coen’s first solo outing, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Encouraged over the years to direct a stage version of “Macbeth” by his wife, Frances McDormand, Coen finally succumbed after she played Lady Macbeth in a Berkeley Rep production.
After watching some rehearsals, Coen started to see his way to doing it as a film, inspired more by Carl Dreyer and Roman Polanski than Orson Welles, Coen said. The film is stripped down and overtly a play, but it’s also visual and aural and cinematic, shot by five-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) in glorious black-and-white.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” does have that “Chimes of Midnight” foggy-set feel, as Coen got a kick out of figuring out how to create “awkward” scale on a soundstage, as F.W. Murnau did with silent classic “Sunrise,” also shot with the square Academy aspect ratio, without traveling to some distant castle. “The design was all about stripping it down,” said Coen. “This was the longest gestating process for any design for any film I’ve done.”
Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington at the NYFF.
The austere, airy, massive sets, complete with circling ravens that turn into three witches (played with limb-twisting, gravelly oiced aplomb by Shakespeare vet Kathryn Hunter) only serves to showcase Shakespeare’s words, streamlined and propulsive, and the older-than-usual ambitious childless couple at the center, Lord and Lady Macbeth.
From the start McDormand and Washington knew how to play their union. “We both understood about each other,” that there has always been a fight,” said McDormand. “We fought it as gracefully as possible, but the fight’s never gonna be over. So, we brought that to it, we still knew how to fight. Maybe we were limping a little bit, maybe it took us a little bit longer to get it, but the fight was still there.”
Added Washington: “We still knew how to win!”
Coen collaborated with producer-actress McDormand (taking on some of his brother Ethan’s usual role) and was happy to get a quick yes from his first choice as Thane of Cawdor, Denzel Washington, who has taken on Richard III and King Lear onstage, and starred in Kenneth Branagh’s movie “Much Ado About Nothing.” “I went to school 1,000 feet from this theater and played Othello when I was 20 years old and didn’t know what I was doing,” said Washington, who has great chemistry with McDormand. “It’s been a long 1,000 feet! It’s the ultimate challenge, it’s the ultimate reward. Shakespeare is where I started and it’s where I want to finish.”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
Both Oscar perennials are back in the Oscar swim, with two-time Oscar-winner Washington (“Glory,” “Training Day”) arguably doing his best work. He will go up against Will Smith in “King Richard” and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog,” who both seek their first win. Three-time-winner McDormand could go in either Best Actress or Supporting.
Backed by AppleTV+ and A24, the movie could go far with strong critical support and a well-known Shakespeare title; it’s a classy, gorgeously mounted production with thrilling performances directed by Coen, who with Ethan won Best Directing, Adapted Screenplay and Picture for “No Country for Old Men,” as well as Original Screenplay for “Fargo.” The movie also boasts a soaring orchestral score from two-time nominee Carter Burwell (“Carol,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).
The entire cast collected for three weeks of rehearsal, as Coen gave the actors different parts to play and built a company. He toyed with different approaches to the disparate accents but ultimately decided everyone could use their own cadence. Making a strong impression in supporting roles, besides Hunter, are Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) as Macduff, and British thespians Alex Hassell (“Cowboy Bebop”) as conniver Ross (a role that Coen beefed up a bit, inspired by Kenneth Tynan’s script for Polanski’s 1971 “Macbeth”) and Bertie Carvel as a shaggy-browed Banquo.
It’s easy to see contemporary parallels as the royal court devolves into dog-eat-dog behavior. “What makes the play so political is that there will always be murderous tyrants, opportunists, ambitious people led down the primrose path,” said Carvel. “But it’s what everybody else does around them that makes it really dangerous. It’s the reason that these plays get done again and again and don’t lose their steam because you don’t have to look very far to see that kind of stuff in the corridors of power anywhere in the world today.”
That magic connection to the world we live in is what makes a Best Picture contender.
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