he Tragedy of Macbeth – a movie review:

Part II Set, Lighting, Costumes & Score

The sets (Stefan Dechant – Avatar and True Grit), lighting and cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), costumes (Mary Zophre) and score (Carter Burwell – FargoThe Big LebowskiNo Country for Old Men) are more intrinsic to this movie than in any that I have seen lately. The action and interpretation are enormously enhanced as well as facilitated by the lighting and sets, costumes and soundtrack. The film is shot in black and white – really dark and light grey – to emphasize shadows and beams of light that penetrate the high brutalist architecture (cf. the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto) of a stage set that has been stretched vertically and horizontally and in terms of depth beyond any stage you have ever witnessed. The unnaturalism of the set supersedes what could have been viewed on a wild Scottish heath.  

Why? Because, in the end, we are not really in Scotland but instead dwell within the architecture of Macbeth’s mind and mythic dimensions of the play. We are watching a stage, not a landscape, where the mind plays out its struggles and contradictions. The most brilliant quality of the movie I found was how Coen combined the poetry of Shakespearian blank and rhymed verse with such barren visuals. The sets and sounds and costumes all allow the language a greater clarity.

The scenes are not always logical or sequential. Characters appear out of mists, appear in hallways, on long stairways and on castle ramparts as if emerging from thin air. This is because we are offered an unnatural realm for the unconscious to act out, not a natural landscape. The combination of the real and the dream – or really the nightmares – create a super-reality. The film owes much more to German expressionism as developed after the horrendous events of The Great War than to the stock shots of Hollywood, even though the whole movie was shot on a sound stage.

The first manifesto of the surrealist movement wrote of a “psychic automatism.” This is how Macbeth and Macbeth’s wife’s actions have to be viewed – not as behaviour determined by intentions, but actions driven by unconscious passions. On the cognitive level, Macbeth cannot both believe the witch’s prophecy that he will be king AND that it will be Banquo (Bertie Carvell) who produces a line of kings. Why seize the throne if that will be the outcome?

But the actions are not determined by a consequential calculation but by hidden forces that turn a brave warrior into a bloodthirsty serial killer. The scenery does not represent a Scottish heath or any real Scottish castle. The concrete is too smooth, the elevations are far too lofty and the fenestrations make no rational sense. They are there simply to direct beams of light on the action. On a more metaphysical level, the film offers a critique of those who believe that political actions on the world stage can be understood in terms of rational explanations. The film is but another radical departure for a Coen film, for it is rooted in the depths of the imagination far more than a Minnesota landscape or a Scottish one for that matter.

Joel Coen, using Bruno Delbonet, films the movie through a 1:33:1 aspect ratio adapted from silent film and discards the widescreen approach of modern films the better to hone in on the intimate and the personal against a minimalist but brutalist background. Further, birds turn into witches and witches sit above the action on beams rather than on the same level as humans. Potions and parts of bodies are dropped onto the floor of the castle which has become a pool of water, first bubbling and then boiling and finally dissipating altogether.  Elements not found together in real life are juxtaposed. For this is a film about the unconscious life projected on the world stage. What counts is not the verisimilitude of the image but its emotional power to evoke the imaginative realm.

Why now? Why this Macbeth? Because we live in a time in which irrationality rather than reason rules the roost, where rational calculation is bracketed to reflect how thought really works. It is mythical. It is allegorical. It is mystical. It is metaphysical. German expressionism as expressed by George Grosz or Wilhelm Klemm is inverted, for the intention is not to remind the audience of our inalienable humanity but of our most evil instincts. Art then is not redemptive but subversive.

That is why Stefan Dechant has been inspired by brutalist architecture, its minimalist construction and its use of bare building materials. No ornate baroque here. No decorative design or carpets or wall hangings. Instead, we find long columns or walls of smooth concrete punctuated by openings above and below and from the side. The angular Pythagorean shapes suggest a rationality of the surface that disguises the turmoil beneath. The black and white – or gray on gray – monochrome offer shadows rather than shades, sharp contrasts rather than blends. Joel Coen wants to liberate us from a nostalgic view of Shakespeare to reveal him as a prophet of our contemporary age. It is a search for honesty and revelation rather than hiding the underlying structure of the mind. What is revered is not a divine force but the harsh reality of the concrete and real world seething with passions underneath. The absolute clarity of the structure and the strict formality of the clean lines and angles using the barest of hard materials is reflected in a repetition of ballustrades, openings, steps, shafts – all suggesting a modular world that is very contemporary.  And cold. And austere. And bare. And hollow. And empty. Yet very muscular with very long wide corridors and very high walls.

The armor plate of the warriors and their costumes convey not only strength and security but aesthetic beauty. Thus, Ross (Alex Hassell), as a minor character promoted in status, emerges first as a striking sleek figure in black with a sharp goatee, a very handsome face and the body of a stud. He is a striking cool presence while he serves as an Iago for Macbeth, a facilitator of evil and murder rather than the grace he appears to express.

Carter Burwell’s sound cues (cf. https://www.what-song.com/Movies/Soundtrack/104698/The-Tragedy-of-Macbeth) – are drawn from action and horror films, but mostly thrillers – the pounding boots hitting the concrete floor, the slapping of a tree branch against a window pain, the drips of water reverberating like thunderclaps in the room which has itself become a cauldron. Death is made palpable. And even more than death – the fear of mortality. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are driven by a deep desire to fend off mortality by grasping for a last gasp of greatness. In the moment of action, we hear the weighty instrumentation of the fiddle rather than violin strings that reverberate and recall earlier soundings, especially the prophecies of the witches in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have become trapped. At the same time, those folk sounds are grounded rather than elevated. The musical chords are used to shadow the present moment and adumbrate the future as the plot unfolds, the pace increases and the end is foreshadowed.  

Sets, lighting, cinematography, costumes and score all reverberate against one another to convey Coen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

As Macbeth conveys the message in his famous soliloquy:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.


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