‘Do not bid me speak,’ says Macduff in Macbeth as he stumbles out of the room where he has discovered Duncan’s butchered body. ‘See,’ he commands instead, although Shakespeare does not let us do so. The words spoken by the play’s characters replace the evidence of our eyes and alter what we might see, as when Macbeth, with an exquisite delicacy that covers his guilt, describes Duncan’s ‘silver skin laced with his golden blood’.
A director who films Shakespeare must make us privy to those forbidden sights, and Joel Coen in The Tragedy of Macbeth documents Duncan’s murder in close-up, as Macbeth sits on the old man’s bed, pensively studies him for a while as he sleeps, then stops his mouth with one hand and thrusts a dagger into his throat with the other. Yet this kind of flagrant exposure is not what makes Coen’s visual adaptation of a verbal drama so powerful. His film, photographed in inky black and luminous white by Bruno Delbonnel, is a chromatic poem which re-creates the mysterious kindling of light in darkness that both thrilled and perturbed audiences when cinema was an occult new invention.
Coen’s Macbeth begins in impenetrable gloom; then, after being sealed in some black enclosure, we are suddenly assaulted by a blank frame of glaring whiteness, a window onto an indecipherable region marked by irregular blotches resembling blood on snow. This chiaroscuro is written into Shakespeare’s play. Describing the depressive Scottish weather after the king’s death, Ross says that darkness entombs nature and murderously stifles ‘living light’. ‘Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame?’ he asks as he surveys the permanent dusk. Coen and Delbonnel evoke that spectral atmosphere without words.
Photography usually writes with light, but here the camera records the language of shadows. The tent in which Macbeth sleeps on the battlefield is a screen, etched with the skeletal outline of dead trees outside. Lady Macbeth burns the letter in which her husband tells her of his promotion; a reflection from the flames ignites her face. When Banquo points to the moon as it dodges behind clouds, its silvery gleam briefly touches his head and is then blotted out, as he soon will be. Often the brightness is as painful as the beam of an interrogation lamp, and sometimes it looks sickly, as if radioactive. The monochrome palette occasionally hints at colour, which might be an optical illusion: the scene at the English court allows for a brief haze of frosty blue, a foresight of spring.
In their films of Macbeth, Roman Polanski and Justin Kurzel took the play into the open air: Polanski used Tudor forts in Northumberland and on Holy Island as backdrops, while Kurzel set his actors to tramp through bogs and sloughs in remote regions of Scotland. Coen confines the action to a studio, banishing nature. His castellated sets are empty, angular abstractions, a homage to the designs made by Edward Gordon Craig for Shakespearean productions at the start of the 20th century, with a vertiginous flight of steps, down which Lady Macbeth falls (or is perhaps, in this version, pushed).
Speaking, as Macduff insists, is secondary to seeing. Coen has likened the Macbeths to the pairs of semi-articulate lovers who commit murder in the pulp novels of James M Cain; unsurprisingly, his actors never manage to reconcile the ruthless actions of the characters with their poetic eloquence. Frances McDormand, who plays Lady Macbeth, has compared the blank verse to rap or slam poetry, emphasising its kinetic energy, and Denzel Washington’s Macbeth hurtles through his soliloquies at speed, as if clearing an obstacle course. When Shakespeare’s hero speaks of ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’, he does so to quietly condemn himself; the line shouldn’t be an excuse for histrionic bluster. McDormand has come closer to Lady Macbeth in some of her previous grimly comic performances – as the vengeful mother who fire-bombs a police station in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or even as the knife-wielding adulterous wife in Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film, Blood Simple. Here she can convey only the banality of evil, as when she fussily curtails the banquet after Macbeth’s hallucination.
The demonic spirit of Shakespeare’s play is better embodied by Alex Hassell, cast as Ross – usually a faceless courtier, here omnipresent as a political fixer who slithers about in pointy-toed slippers, wrapped in a sleek robe like a metallic second skin that gives him the appearance of an erect cobra. Even creepier is Kathryn Hunter, who triplicates herself to play all three witches. Her maledictions are uttered in a series of registers ranging from a screech to a croak, and she seems to grow extra limbs that curl around each other as she writhes, while the wrinkles on her face deepen into geological fissures. In one scene, Hunter’s weird triplets do their prophesying while perched in the rafters, like a coven of crows in the densely rooky wood imagined by Macbeth as he plots to kill Banquo; there they wait to explode into the squadron of black Hitchcockian birds that suddenly expunges the white screen at the end of the film. Moments like this, made possible by the sinister magic of digital manipulation, are genuinely terrifying. Coen may be tripped up by the involutions and metaphorical leaps of Shakespeare’s language, but he understands the sorcery of cinema.