Of Toil and Trouble: Joel Coen’s "The Tragedy of Macbeth"

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Joel Coen's solo directed, dread-filled adaptation stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as older, wearier leaders.

By Peter Kim George

Orson Welles was 33 when he cast himself as Macbeth in his 1948 screen adaptation, Jeannette Nolan 37 as Lady Macbeth. Jon Finch is 28 in Roman Polanski’s version, Francesca Annis 26. The point being that Joel Coen’s casting of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in the titular roles, 66 and 64 respectively, is a decision that lands with timely force and intention. In Coen’s hands, Shakespeare’s plot of murderous usurpation seems almost a pretext, a backdrop against which this adaptation’s most poignant aspects emerge: its pervasive sense of dread, the feeling that we are living in the middle of something in its final throes. 

From his first scene with the Weird Sisters, Washington’s Macbeth looks worn, hunched, heavyset—his face seems to have the look of a very modern anxiety. He takes in the Weird Sister’s prophecy as a burden. Joel Coen, for whom the Tragedy of Macbeth is his first solo venture without his brother Ethan, makes an interesting inversion of the source text in one scene; Coen takes a line uttered by King Duncan in Shakespeare’s text, “There’s no art/ to find the mind’s construction in the face,” and gives it to Macbeth with a twist, who mutters under his breath, “Is it not art to find the mind’s construction in the face?” If King Duncan’s point had been that you can’t tell what is from what appears, for Washington’s Macbeth, appearance is the thing—appearance is the base on which everything stands, and he’s spent a lifetime crafting it. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth too is utterly captivating: even when the camera cuts to a predictable close-up for her delivery of the classic monologue, “unsex me here/And fill me… of direst cruelty,” it doesn’t feel contrived. McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is brimming with steely vengeance; she’s been unsexed for some time. 

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