Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth takes its cue from the witches. Or, rather, its one witch, played by Kathryn Hunter, who multiplies herself when she feels like it. Early in the film she stares at us across a pool while talking to Macbeth and Banquo. She is alone but there are two reflections in the water, neither of them in the right place to be hers. Then suddenly there are three witches in a row. They turn and leave. By this point we have already had a closer look at the one who speaks. She crouches on the ground, her bare left leg where her arm ought to be, her whole figure contorted like a human pretzel. She is very pleased with herself because she has acquired a dead sailor’s thumb. She shows it to us, held between her toes.
The movie is shot by Bruno Delbonnel in black and white, but its dominant colour is a very pale grey. The witch speaks, as the witches in Macbeth always do, of ‘fog and filthy air’, and we see a filthy screen straight away, with two birds faintly discernible in the fog, hovering as if in an air show. This fog is everywhere in the film: characters appear and disappear in it, it fills groves of trees, and when Macduff’s son is killed he is thrown into the smoke of a burning house (the smoke looks like the fog after a costume change). This is more than a metaphor – it’s a kind of climate, a rendering of the witch’s relish at the thought that fair is foul and foul is fair. We could call it a ‘filthy witness’, to borrow Lady Macbeth’s term for her husband’s blood-smeared hands.
This is the first Coen movie to have been directed by just one of the brothers, and Joel Coen is also credited as the writer. Writing must mean skilful cutting, since as far as I can tell the words are all Shakespeare’s. What belongs to Coen and his actors is the way the words are framed and uttered. A great deal of what we understand in this movie is visual, a matter of what the camera wants us to look at and from what angle. Not for a moment do we feel we are watching a filmed play. We see Lady Macbeth, for example, from above, lying down, in a high-angle close-up. Then the camera pulls away and turns to reveal Macbeth gazing at her. We were Macbeth until the camera shifted. We even get to see the lopped branches from Birnam Wood on their way to Dunsinane, which Macbeth learns of only by report.
Some critics have felt the film is not grand enough, not up to the high rhetoric of its speeches, but the low-key acting adds a human element to scenes that are often played as formalities. Ralph Ineson, as the injured captain reporting to Duncan after a battle, laughs out loud when the king asks him if Macbeth and Banquo were not ‘dismayed’ by the arrival of reinforcements for the enemy. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘as sparrows, eagles, or the hare, the lion.’ This is the person the king has called a ‘bloody man’, and who is about to pass out, saying ‘My gashes cry for help.’
It’s true that there is often an uncomfortable contrast between the modest looks and fancy thoughts of Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife. But then we probably should feel uncomfortable. We can interpret the characters as talking beautifully about horrors because they don’t want to think about them in any other way. Language is both art (for the audience) and evasion (for the murderers). The clash can be almost comic too. The witch is fond of alliteration and so is Macbeth, literally and doubtless unconsciously quoting her with his very first words: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ But then he also says to Banquo, ‘Fail not our feast,’ and thinks that if he could kill Duncan without the risk of any afterthoughts the whole enterprise would ‘catch with his surcease, success’. Washington delivers this and many other such lines with real ease, as if it were the way everybody talks, and there is a kind of dizziness in the thought that death and triumph – surcease and success – can sound so similar, like an attempt to get the pronunciation right. Language itself seems to be grinning at the truism that if you want to be the king you may have to kill the king.
One of the most haunting features of the Macbeth story, very well caught in this version, is the failure of its main characters to be who they think they are. Macbeth is not the tough guy his kingship plan requires, and this makes him more and more eloquent, at the same time as it makes him more of a villain than a straightforward killer would be. Macbeth agonises over his own actions but doesn’t think twice about ordering others to murder Banquo and Lady Macduff and her children. Lady Macbeth says something to this effect about him, though her evaluation of the problem is different. She thinks he ‘is too full of the milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way’. The repetition of ‘catch’ is intriguing. We note that she is speaking directly to him (‘I do fear thy nature’) even though he isn’t present. The characters talk to themselves a lot in this world.
But then Lady Macbeth, fully possessed of the evil power she needs for action, turns out to be unable to live with the memory of what she has done. The success of Duncan’s surcease leads to her madness and death. McDormand brings to this role, as she does to so many roles, a wonderful mixture of intelligence and surprise, a sense that her character knows exactly what is happening and yet can’t quite believe it. In her sleepwalking she becomes almost playful, almost a child, a startling reminder of the disjunction that afflicts her and her husband. They are disjoined from each other too. When Macbeth begins the speech that starts with ‘She should have died hereafter,’ he is standing at the top of a very long stone staircase. At the bottom, almost invisible because of the distance, is the corpse of his wife. He descends slowly as he speaks, and we hear in our heads the famous later uses of his words: ‘All our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death’; ‘Life’s but a walking shadow … a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.’
The staircase is a feature of the building, the Scotland of the mind, that is the architectural cousin of the fog. It ought to be its antithesis but it isn’t. When we’re not in the snow or the fields or the forest, we are in a modernist castle, a place of unadorned galleries, corridors, rooms and courtyards that looks as if it was designed by De Chirico rather than any medieval mason, and it complements the fog because, as the movie keeps showing us, it is all too easy to get lost among straight lines. When Macbeth has his second meeting with the witches (the one where they tell him that ‘none of woman born’ can do him any harm and that he will not be vanquished ‘until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him’) he doesn’t go to see them, since they are already in the castle. They show up in the roof, among the high beams. It is a fine directorial touch.
The witches are often seen as escapees from Macbeth’s mind, and they are certainly attuned to it (or his mind is attuned to them). But this film, through Kathryn Hunter’s sheer cackling delight, suggests something else: that a mentality exists which thoroughly enjoys the havoc Macbeth and others can only suffer. Macduff’s line ‘Confusion now hath made its masterpiece’ sounds quite different if we imagine it spoken by a witch.