Oscar Films

‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ Robbed Of Nominations

Should have gotten best picture, best actress nods. And what a performance by Denzel Washington.

By - Feb 24th, 2022 02:48 pm
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Apple.

Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Apple.

In the stark, black-and-white, almost landscape of The Tragedy of Macbeth — almost in that it takes shape only to transport us — director and shrewd editor of Shakespeare’s original, Joel Coen, does not waste any time to address the hot social media controversy that surrounds the casting of his wife, Frances McDormand, and Denzel Washington, 67, as the Macbeths. 

The social media talk is all about how they are too old for the roles. The parts have been played as young rebels or sensual lovers or middle aged overachievers, but here there is no effort by Coen to justify their long-term relationship nor hide the grizzled lines and non-Botoxed necks. They just ARE and believable as practiced lieges who have risen to the heights of a Scottish court where they can scheme in isolation and embrace their darkest ambitions. Works just fine.

Coen simply lets us realize that these veteran members of the court will be abnormally trusted by Duncan the king and other nobles, letting us focus not on how they avoid the law, but become the hated law itself as they wade deeper into the lies and the blood. 

McDormand was not even nominated for an Oscar – was it because she won last year? Or is this a mild ageism snub – part reaction to that famous “unsex me here” dialogue? Either way it is a horrid oversight. She is a concentrated, convincing, earthy, understandable Lady Macbeth who becomes numbed by the blood hunger she has unleashed within her husband and can no longer control. The calibrations are well done without cheating in terms of dramatic acting. The film cuts the emotional conflicts to the bone, every courtier there for a reason.

Coen’s style in the telling is minimalist, tight-fisted and only exploding in cinematic punctuations for good reason. Perhaps this was why it wasn’t nominated as best picture. It seems to take place in fog or abstract space which suddenly has landscapes that echo each other, with sudden stark outlines of castles and roads, and places murderers can hide or victims can delay the inevitable. We move through this space with quickness and fear, never knowing what lies around the next invented turn. Shakespeare’s words have a human bite to them.

With Coen there is a subtlety as well as cleverness in how the settings melt into each other, how mere passageways, endless steps and chambers sublimate into the next scene, how floods of birds and leaves are suddenly unleashed to paint the way to doom. The sets are built for cinema, not for the stage.

In this of all years, Coen’s power with a limited palette should be recognized. The Oscars have gone overboard in the best director category to praise those whose general artistry is loved even if this wasn’t their best year. There are no other honors, for example, for Licorice Pizza. Even those who admire “best” director Paul Thomas Anderson might admit he is there just because he embodies how giddily palettes, editing and running techniques can be employed to entertain us. Indeed some nominations are really about the way the film pyrotechnics have been used or even overused, maybe because Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences technical experts are voting for each other.

The hands-down best lead actor at the Oscars is Denzel Washington, who could clearly play Macbeth onstage but here makes human the conversational elements of some of Shakespeare’s most famous poetry. He muses in bitter solitude, he dreams in active voice, he bellows with menacing authority and questions Banquo in hidden gentle threat (“goes Fleance with you?”).

If you know the play intimately, you may sense some disappointments (the night porter tries too hard to be funny), but you won’t miss the cuts, such as the unneeded scene in England where Malcolm tries to test Macduff’s commitment to the cause.

Joel Coen (operating here without younger brother Ethan) confesses in interviews that he is a novice scholar – like hell. He has made the mysterious Third Murderer (whose purpose has confounded many directors before him) a clever plot device. He creates a Macbeth so consumed by overreach that his ending is in keeping with his disease.

He has edited the sleepwalking scene with great skill and belief in the original and he has been remarkably inventive and terrifying in the Witches — using a shape-shifting stage legend, Kathleen Hunter, to twist her limbs and guttural her voice into the master puppeteer of all three weird ones. Though there are some special effects involved, how Hunter is not nominated as best supporting actress is beyond me, except that category already had too many options.

If Denzel wins in a walk, I will forgive a strange Oscar year, clearly affected by pandemic delays and vagaries of online vs. movie house receipts, which apparently influence voters. But it is passing strange that a powerful Shakespeare adaptation that will stand the test of time better than Olivier’s Hamlet (which did win best picture) has gotten so little attention as this Tragedy of Macbeth.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

2 thoughts on “Oscar Films: ‘Tragedy of Macbeth’ Robbed Of Nominations”

  1. Kathryn Magayne-Roshak says:

    What a pleasure to read Dominique Noth back in his oeuvre!

  2. kaygeeret says:

    I double the above pleasure at his return and did not realize just how much I have missed his insightful, clever and so profoundly thoughtful reviews.

    He doesn’t need lengthy proclamations to show how understandable and creative a film/play can be.

    His review of the Rep’s current production is insightful and made me want to attend, as does this review make me want to see the movie.

    Full disclosure: Olivier’s Hamlet made me hate Shakespeare for a very long time.

    Welcome Dominique Noth! I will look forward to more reviews.

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