Devastating, divine take on the Scottish Play

Washington and McDormand ferocious as the ambitious Macbeths

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When Roman Polanski filmed his 1971 version of The Scottish Play, he employed younger actors than usual to play the usurper and his wife — Jon Finch and Francesca Annis — and made things especially difficult for himself by filming in wet, inhospitable locations around the British Isles to bring to life the bleak Scottish environs of William Shakespeare’s play. The movie had other baggage as well: Since it was produced by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, it was inevitable perhaps that Annis would play Lady Macbeth’s “Out, out damned spot” scene in the nude.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/12/2021 (222 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Roman Polanski filmed his 1971 version of The Scottish Play, he employed younger actors than usual to play the usurper and his wife — Jon Finch and Francesca Annis — and made things especially difficult for himself by filming in wet, inhospitable locations around the British Isles to bring to life the bleak Scottish environs of William Shakespeare’s play. The movie had other baggage as well: Since it was produced by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, it was inevitable perhaps that Annis would play Lady Macbeth’s “Out, out damned spot” scene in the nude.

Director Joel Coen, operating for the first time without his co-creator brother, Ethan, goes in pretty much the opposite direction for his take, The Tragedy of Macbeth. All locations, from castle interiors to blasted heaths, are marked by a minimalist, even blank mise en scène reminiscent of Daffy Duck surrounded by white space in Duck Amuck. It’s also in black and white. The aspect ratio of the screen is almost square. This starkly existential interpretation has no pretense to Hollywood epic.

Also, the Macbeths are much older. We meet Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) on a strangely featureless foggy site where they encounter three witches, who predict Macbeth will inherit the crown from King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). All three witches are played by the marvelous actress Kathryn Hunter, who steals scenes with the finesse of a master thief.

Alison Rosa/A24/Apple TV+ The fall of Macbeth must have been a delight for Denzel Washington to play.

The witches crack open the door to Macbeth’s ambition, and it blows wide open when Macbeth shares the prediction with his wife, Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), whose own thirst for power is nothing less than ferocious.

Their age is part and parcel of their ambition, apparent when Duncan announces his wishes for the heir apparent Prince Malcolm (Harry Melling), which sends the aged Macbeth into a secret rage.

Macbeth’s murder of Duncan and his ascension to king requires more murders, including the hapless Banquo and most upsettingly the innocent family of Macduff (Corey Hawkins).

Apple TV+/TNS Kathryn Hunter plays all three witches in The Tragedy of Macbeth and so triply steals every scene.

Separately and together, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to unravel as their increasingly fiendish machinations exact a toll on their sanity.

Washington is an especially interesting choice to play Macbeth. He comes to the role with a resume filled with capable men of action, which fits with our first impression of him as a fearless warrior, loyal to the rightful king. It is not difficult to imagine Washington’s delight at the thought of turning that persona upside down, revealing the tainted, grotty aspiration beneath.

The same dynamic may hold for McDormand, who was a symbol of all that is good as the pregnant small-town sleuth in the Coen brothers’ 1996 landmark Fargo. The chill she evokes here has nothing to do with subzero temperatures.

Alison Rosa/A24/Apple TV+ In his take on the Scottish Play, director Joel Coen incisively plays against viewers’ heroic perceptions of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand usual roles.

While staying essentially true to the text, Coen crucially tweaks Shakespeare’s philosophy. The Bard was in favour of the divine right of kings and often wrote about how usurpers — in Hamlet, King Lear — upset that godly hierarchy: the Great Chain of Being. The final shot of the film, which sees Prince Malcolm on his way to assume his rightful place on the throne, offers up an amazing image suggesting the relief from Macbeth’s reign will be short-lived, and that unfettered power of kings or would-be kings is neither divine nor ideal.

randall.king.arts@gmail.com

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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