Well. I have a lot of thoughts! And… spoilers, I guess? If you don’t know the play, then definitely spoilers; and if you’d rather not know about the staging, then those will be too.
Straight up: I loved it. I think it’s beautiful to watch, I think it captures the play’s ideas, and I thought the actors were generally fantastic.
(Keep in mind, I am no drama teacher, and neither am I a film critic! I’ll probably have missed the point of some elements…)
As a film:
- Most obviously, it’s filmed in black and white, which was awesome. It was, oddly, so very rich – saturated, I guess – I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing much without colour. It made the fades between scenes more interesting, and it made everything much more stark.
- Some of the segues were glorious. And the use of silhouettes was brilliant.
- The use of birds throughout was a very nice motif: they’re the first thing you see – and, I realised only after a scene with the witches, it’s three of them; and circling “through the fog and filthy air”, in fact. Then Duncan sees them flying overhead, then you see them at other points too. In particular, the witches turn into birds after their final scene with Macbeth – and when Macbeth thinks he’s having a go at Banquo’s ghost, everyone else sees him flapping at a bird. (And Lady Macbeth opens a window and shoos the bird out, which is GOLD.)
- The movie is basically without context. There’s no attempt to make Washington have a Scottish accent, and Brendan Gleeson as Duncan has his Irish accent on full display. And then there’s the PLACE, which I adored: it’s utterly unplaceable. The witches and Macbeth and Banquo could be walking across dirt, or it could be sand, or dust. No idea! Duncan’s camp could be three tents or dozens; no idea! And then when we get inside, Lady Macbeth is walking down a corridor and Duncan arrives to a courtyard – but there’s no sense of how large this place is. Actually that’s not quite true; the bits of building we see are unreal, and far too large. Even when inside, there’s a tight focus on people, and especially on faces, so we basically don’t know what their surroundings are like most of the time. The only time we see a full building is the castle of Fife – and it’s a solid tower plonked on a cliff, also looking unreal. It’s almost like a cinematic version of a theatre – all hints at buildings, not whole. It lends the film a claustrophobic feel.
- The clothing is also interesting. It’s definitely not modern, suits and so on; but neither is it full-on medieval, or even faux medieval. Macbeth looks like he’s wearing a gambeson, the padded coat under armour, the whole time; Lady Macbeth is wearing long dresses but they’re not of a time. Timeless, in fact.
- Opening with JUST the witches’ voices was really interesting… and then to see just one witch, I was intrigued. But THEN she stands above water and there’s two witches in the reflection, and THEN they come out of the water? Very cool, and a nice way to differentiate this version. And Kathryn Hunter, the actress, actually DID all those contortions??
- Banquo’s eyebrows are quite the statement.
- This Macbeth is never happy. Not even at the start.
- They showed a dagger when he’s hallucinating, but then it’s actually the door handle! Very clever.
- Duncan is awake when Macbeth murders him! Now that’s a choice – and somehow makes it worse, I think.
- I paid close attention to Lady Macbeth’s hair, since it’s so often used as a signal for a woman’s state of mind, and… I think it is here? But not so dramatically as in other films. When she’s in control, her hair is very neatly and tightly and elaborately up. It’s in a plait when in bed, but that just makes sense. And at the end, when she’s sleepwalking, it’s definitely more on the loose-and-wild side.
- They kept the porter scene, which… I guess you need to let Macduff into the castle; they made him a bit silly but definitely didn’t play it up (and I think it may have been cut down, but it’s been a while since I read/saw it).
- The murderers are the least murderous-looking murderers I’ve ever seen.
- What the heck is up with Ross?? He talks to an “old man”, who is played by the woman who plays the witches; he seems to be on everyone’s side. And then he’s the third murderer?? And he’s the one to find Fleance and consciously allows him to live? I’m very confused and intrigued. Because THEN you see Ross approaching Lady Macbeth at the top of the stairs – cut – and then Lady Macbeth is dead at the bottom of the stairs, so… ?? Ross is then the one to bring the crown – and Macbeth’s head – to Malcolm. And finally, the film ends with Ross going back to the old man, who has been hiding Fleance, and they ride off together … and when they get to a dip in the road, they don’t appear again – but a big flock of birds fly up and away… Ambiguous, to say the least.
- I’m always a fan of ‘Lady Macbeth as one of the witches’ and she puts something into Macbeth’s wine… and then he wakes up ‘tomorrow’ and there are the three witches, in the castle. So that’s another ambiguous touch.
- The testing of Malcolm is NOT included, which is an interesting choice. It does make the play longer, and it can be a bit confusing. I feel like there might have been a few other bits with Malcolm that were cut, early on; so Coen has chosen to focus just on Macbeth, and not bother with the comparison with the saintlier Malcolm.
This was just wonderful and I expect it will be embraced with joy by many English and drama teachers. And, hopefully, people who haven’t seen a Shakespeare production in years / ever.